Sharing Experience: Robert Aitken’s River of Heaven

First published in the Haiku Foundation journal Juxta 4:1, October 2018. Originally written in May of 2012, with revisions in 2013, 2014, and 2017. See also the new postscript at the end, which explores more of Robert Aitken’s life and his own writing of haiku.

Robert Aitken. The River of Heaven: The Haiku of Bashō, Buson, Issa, and Shiki. Berkeley: Counterpoint, 2011. 5.5 by 8.25 inches, 200 pages, perfectbound, ISBN 978-1-58243-710-1.

There’s a class of haiku books wherein the author sets out to appreciate a particular set of haiku. Hundreds of pages in the books of R. H. Blyth do exactly that, as does Patricia Donegan’s more recent Haiku Mind. Another fine example is Robert Aitken’s A Zen Wave, which offers an extensive appreciation for the haiku of Bash
ō, from a Zen perspective. A Zen Wave was one of Aitken’s earliest books, from 1978, and haiku was a subject he returned to with his final book before he died, The River of Heaven, published in 2011. This book presents a brief overview of each of the four haiku masters he celebrates—Bashō, Buson, Issa, and Shiki—and each section contains an extensive selection of poems, plus commentary. The commentary ranges from historical context to personal reaction, and we learn something new or refreshing in most cases. Above all, perhaps, we feel the author’s love for these poems, and his joy in sharing them with readers.


The section on Bashō, the book’s longest, features 88 haiku. I have not checked to see if some of the poems here are repeated from A Zen Wave (New York: Weatherhill, 1978), partly because I do not want to know, and would prefer to apprehend these poems regardless of whether he may have addressed them previously. Here we have occasionally opinionated comments. For example, on page 9, Aitken says of Bashō’s famous poem about the crow settling on a withered branch that it does not mark the poet’s great awakening. He states that the last line (referring to an autumn evening) has an “intellectual kind of symbolism that is quite out of keeping with his mature work.” (Here I am reminded of Roland Barthes, who said in The Empire of Signs (New York: Hill and Wang, 1970) that haiku simply is, and does not symbolize, although I don’t necessarily agree.)
        On page 21, Aitken comments on “Fleas, lice, / a horse pissing / just outside” by saying that “This verse is commonly mistranslated” by a reference to “by my pillow.” He says that the word “Makuramoto is ‘by my pillow’ literally, but it is a metaphor meaning ‘near where I sleep.’” I would disagree with this interpretation, however, because words always have literal meanings before they offer implications. Words denotate before they connotate. And the literal denotation is indeed “by my pillow,” and thus would seem not to be a mistranslation to say so. That being said, it certainly is plausible that the term is also a metaphor meaning “near where I sleep,” so I’m grateful for that observation.
        On page 64, Aitken notes that “All of Bashō’s verses were occasional verses,” meaning that they were written about direct personal experience and to commemorate specific occasions (he often gave his poems as gifts to honoured recipients). While this is most likely true, I would hasten to add that Bashō never hesitated to alter his poems for the sake of literary value—thus taking them away from the occasion. Many of the poems in Bashō’s famous Oku no Hosomichi were revised or repositioned for best literary effect. Indeed, while Bashō’s poems may have all started out as “occasional” verse, he didn’t stop there with them, seeing a greater value in haiku as poetry rather than merely as diary entries.
        In discussing the poem “Everyone says / a chopped herb helps / if you are confused” on page 67, Aitken declares that “There was no topic that was not grist for Bashō’s mill.” I particularly appreciate this comment, because it suggests that Bashō would surely write about mobile phones and computers if he were alive today. It has been too easy for some students of haiku to assume that technology is not an appropriate topic for haiku, simply because “technology” as we know it did not exist in Bashō’s day. Some poets who favour a pre-Shiki aesthetic for haiku will say that all haiku have to be about nature, but I feel this is a misunderstanding, because haiku aims at the seasons, not just nature, and Bashō and other poets had no hesitation in writing about the “technology” of their day, such as “fulling blocks” (page 93), a device used to dry and soften laundry.


The Buson section features 30 haiku. On page 101, in discussing Buson’s famous poem about the butterfly resting on a temple bell, Aitken states that “This verse played a key role in the establishment of the English and American Imagism movement of the ’10s and ’20s of the last century.” He then talks about Pound and Fenollosa, and a number of the early Imagist poets, even quoting Amy Lowell’s translation of this temple bell poem. These comments are exemplary of Aitken’s cross-cultural awareness, speaking of Western culture and not just which Zen temple a particular poem was composed in.
        On page 103, Aitken makes a puzzling claim in regards to “Just Mount Fuji / shows above / the young foliage” by saying that, with this poem, “Buson lays the dismissive stereotype of ‘The Imagist Poet
 to rest.” Yet I find the poem to demonstrate the opposite, in that it is entirely imagistic. Indeed, it underscores rather than dismisses the so-called stereotype that Buson was an “imagist” poet, which I would say is nothing to be ashamed of in the first place. I wish I could ask Aitken more about this poem, and what he meant by his claim here, or that he’d written more to explain himself.
        A further thought on the imagist question occurs on page 107. Aitken features the Buson poem “A handball / is caught in the drainpipe / in the spring rain.” He says we may wonder if this is simply a “so what” poem, but counters by saying “The sheer lack of meaning and the absence of connections, except for an accidental and unexpected proximity, give life to this poem.” But this wouldn’t be possible if it were not for the value of images placed upon it by the perspective of Imagism. To me, Buson remains a strongly imagist poet, and there’s nothing at all wrong with that—it’s his strength, not his weakness. Aitken seems to have left something unexplained in his comments that dismisses the Imagist interpretation of Buson’s haiku.


The section on Issa features 29 haiku, and we are immediately reminded (on page 135) that “Amid all this tragedy [that Issa’s life was filled with], Issa could be light of spirit.” On page 161, Aitken refers to Issa’s “I have a noonday nap / making the mountain water / pound the rice” as “one of Issa’s best-known verses,” but this puzzles me. In fact, before reading the poem in The River of Heaven, I don’t even recall knowing about the poem. This goes to show, perhaps, how varying one’s impressions of haiku can be, so I actually find it intriguing rather than “wrong” that Aitken believes this poem to be among Issa’s most well known. In the poem itself, I appreciate how Issa values his nap, leaving the mountain water to pound the rice for him while he sleeps. What this example shows is that the book presents fresh poems to readers, for which I’m grateful.


The Shiki section features 26 haiku, and the overview of the poet reminds us that Shiki coined the term “haiku.” I particularly like Aitken’s explanation that it means “play verse” (as opposed to “playful verse,” as some others have said). He defines “play” as being “in the sense of ‘dramatic endeavor,’” which strikes me as a fresh take on approaching haiku. Each haiku is a little story, a little drama, as momentary as it might be, and implies additional drama or story before or after its brief moment of celebration. David Mamet has said that the secret to script writing is to arrive late and leave early, and this is certainly true of the here-and-now “drama” presented in haiku.
        On page 170, Aitken presents Shiki’s “Lighting the lamps, / One shadow is for each / of the dolls.” His capitalization of “One” is inconsistent with his usual method, but I particularly like his comment that, “Like the best verses of the other great haiku poets, something very slight is presented [in the spirit of karumi, or lightness], but yet it is something unforgettably significant.” He goes on to say that “While Bash
ō, Buson, and Issa did bring forth slight phenomena of human affairs, Shiki made them his primary concern.” He later notes (on page 181) that “Shiki is sensitive to subtle points in his everyday world.”

Other Observations

As already mentioned, The River of Heaven was Aitken’s final book. The copyright page explains that the author died before being able to finish the final stages of manuscript revision and book preparation, and thus that a number of errors have crept into the book, seemingly as a result—but not at the fault of the author. Whether for this reason or not, I am definitely aware of errors in the book. For example, the introduction to Bashō refers to his birthplace of Iga-Ueno as being just north of Kyoto. It is in fact some twenty miles to the southeast. The romaji for some of the poems is printed inconsistently, too, such as “yobaren” on page, 6, but “yobare n” on page 13 (when referring to the same poem). The introduction to Bashō refers to the word “oto” (sound) in his famous “old pond” poem as being onomatopoeic, whereas numerous scholars have said that the poem has no onomatopoeic content. The name E. E. Cummings is incorrectly lowercased on page 12, although this is a common misunderstanding. The poem described on page 15 refers to “Girls’ Day Festival” and “Dolls’ Day Festival,” when it would be more accurate to pick one or the other and not switch inexplicably (even if both terms are sometimes used for the same event). This would avoid suggesting that they are different events. And then the next page refers to “Boys’ Day festival,” introducing an inconsistency in capitalization. Aitken typically ends all his translations with periods, yet the poem on page 24 lacks such a period, and the poem there is referred to again on page 49, yet in an inexplicably different translation. The poem on page 45 is described as using a 7-5-5 pattern, but it is actually 8-4-5. On page 76, and again on page 191, Aitken refers to senryū with an unnecessary capital letter. On page 151, Aitken perpetuates a misunderstanding that “money is the root of all evil,” when in fact the original Biblical statement, in translation, from 1 Timothy 6:10, is that “the love of money is the root of all evil.” And on page 183, he makes the odd claim that “boys don’t fly kites anymore.” If Aitken had been able to finish the revisions to his book, perhaps many of these issues would not have changed, but I mention them because they are among examples of where tighter editing and fact-checking would have been helpful, even without the author’s involvement.
        Although just passing mentions in both of two cases, for me one of this book’s most intriguing aspects is when Aitken presents haiku that he wrote himself [see the postscript at the end of this review for an overview of haiku Aitken wrote himself]. On page 26, in discussing a poem on camellias, Aitken shares an exquisite poem he penned in 1951 (although I would suggest removing the word “and” to give the poem a traditional cut):

                A camellia flower falls
                and the Bashō scroll
                quivers a little.

And on page 105, in response to a Buson poem, Aitken shares the following haiku he says he wrote “in Japan long ago” [around 1942 or so]:

                People walking
                through the steady rain
                within themselves.

In both of these poems, I appreciate that they are not forced into a 5-7-5 pattern (remarkable for haiku written in English as long ago as 1951). The first poem is direct and clear with its objective imagism, and we can feel the implication that Bash
ō himself must have appreciated camellias when even the scroll with his image quivers slightly at the falling of the camellia blossom. Camellias drop their entire blossoms all at once, rather than petal by petal, and have traditionally symbolized samurai warriors who lose their heads honourably through decapitation—or at least that the fallen flower represents the fallen soldier (Bashō himself was born into a samurai family).
        The second poem introduces a subjective interpretation (“within themselves”) but I find it to be plausible and believable, and thus entirely effective. Perhaps the poem takes the author out of himself, so it offers a sense of awakening, in contrast to those around him. This hint of Aitken’s own haiku output leads me to wonder if it would be possible to have an entire book of haiku by Aitken. I would certainly be interested in such a collection, especially when we know that Aitken shared part of his World War II internment with R. H. Blyth in Kobe, Japan, and was heavily influenced by Blyth (see “Remembering Blyth Sensei,” in Tricycle, Spring 1998, which the magazine had also briefly published online, with photos, under the title of “Remembering R. H. Blyth”).
        In retrospect, I wish someone (maybe me) had interviewed Aitken about his memories of Blyth in the internment camps, to provide more insight on how Blyth wrote his monumental books on haiku at that time. Aitken’s approach to haiku, like Blyth’s, is heavily Zen-focused, but as the preceding two example haiku demonstrate, they are also imagistic and immediate, and do not suffer from the so-called “stink of Zen.” (I note that Aitken titled his previous haiku book: A Zen Wave: Bash
ō’s Haiku and Zen, and did not title it Bashō’s Zen Haiku, for good reason.) Elsewhere, we do feel a bit of this stink, as in the reference to “A cloud of cherry blossoms! / Was that the bell at Ueno or Asakusa?” where Aitken says this “is an experience old-time Zen students everywhere can relate to.” This seems to reflect too narrow a view on haiku, as if only Zen students cared, which is hardly the case. But that, of course, was Aitken’s world. Nevertheless, I am drawn to the possibility that Aitken might have penned many haiku himself. They would be a pleasure to read, for historical as well as literary reasons, whether they stem from a consistent Zen perspective or not. No wonder Aitken refers to this poetry (on page 51) as “my beloved haiku.” I would love to see more haiku by Aitken himself, and they would surely help to mark Aitken as a pioneer of English-language haiku, even if his poems in this genre have never been widely known [see the discussion of A Garland of Haiku in the postscript at the end of this review].
        In numerous other places in the book, we have peeks into Aitken’s life and his relationship to haiku. For example, on page 23, Aitken refers to the first time he read “The sea is wild! / stretching to Sado Island / is the River of Heaven” (which provides the book’s title). He mentions first reading this poem in 1938 in Asatarō Miyamori’s Anthology of Haiku: Ancient and Modern, in Hawaii, and mentions that “I couldn’t have imagined that Miyamori was launching me on a lifelong passion for Bashō” [he also says that he read the book while interned in a prisoner of war camp in Kobe, Japan, during World War II; see the postscript at the end of this review for more details]. On page 32, referring to a Bashō poem about shepherd’s purse flowers blooming under a hedge, Aitken mentions that “D. T. Suzuki was fond of this haiku.” This tease immediately makes me want to know the story behind this understanding—how does Aitken know this? Fortunately, in this case, he explains by saying that he remembered a talk that Suzuki gave in which he said that “people who give attention to a tiny, beautiful flower like the shepherd’s purse will never use an atom bomb.” On page 49, Aitken reports that Sōen Nakagawa “scolded the director of the Bashō museum in Iga-Ueno for not exhibiting Bashō in a shrine. He is a true bodhisattva, the Rōshi said, just as worthy of a shrine as Manjushrī or Maitreya.” I have visited this museum myself and would say that Bashō is presented primarily as a literary figure, despite having been deified, but that does not mean the poet is any less revered. Aitken also quotes a haiku by Sōen on page 36: “The place established / for the bagworm / is among the cherry blossoms” (Aitken worked and studied with Sōen extensively; many of Sōen’s haiku are collected in his book Endless Vow: The Zen Path of Soen Nakagawa, Boston: Shambhala, 1996). On page 51 Aitken refers to his Parkinson’s disease and how it limited his typing “to two fingers that are forever hitting the wrong keys” and on page 193 he says that “I am wheelchair bound” (he was 93 when he died in 2010, just before The River of Heaven was published). These revelations make the author human and humble—and the accomplishment of this book all the more admirable.
        In a few places I disagree with Aitken’s translation choices. For example, if haiku is typically a here-and-now moment, why does he use past tense? On page 14, he renders part of a Bashō poem as “I wept over my umbilical cord,” whereas saying “weep” would make it more immediate and personal, even if he’s remembering a moment from the past. Likewise, the translation on page 25 says “How I longed / for my parents” when “How I long” would make the poem more intense in the moment. Several translations handle the punctuation poorly, as in “The sound of someone / blowing his nose with his hand / the cherry blossoms” (from page 27). The addition of a dash after “hand” would have been easy to do. The poem has the cutting word “kana” at the end, indicating that the poem employs a one-sentence structure, but this is not represented in Aitken’s translation, a problem that occurs in quite a few other translations (nevertheless, I am attracted to Aitken’s free expression). On page 71, Aitken offers a translation with indefensibly odd syntax: “The end of the year, / affect the wedded / sacred rocks at Futame.” I simply cannot parse the use or form of the word “affect.” Even if it’s simply a typo and he meant “affects,” that itself is unclear, and still at odds with the comma that precedes it, as we gain no feeling for how this might be the case, whether at New Year or not. One of Aitken’s translations is extraordinarily long (page 69): “The full moon and the chrysanthemums / are in almost complete accord. / The chrysanthemums are just past their prime.” This is a total of 27 syllables, in a pattern of 9-8-10 (the original Japanese is 5-7-5, and mentions kiku, chrysanthemums, just once). Here is how I might render the poem, simply to shorten it (7-6-6), retaining both articles, which I feel are necessary for the meaning:

                the moon and chrysanthemum
                in almost full accord—
                the flowers just past prime

Any unmodified reference to the moon can be taken in haiku as being to the full autumn moon, at least in the old lunar calendar that dominated haiku in Japan for most of its history, and the lengthy word “chrysanthemum” need not be repeated. Nevertheless, I appreciate the fact that Aitken was not in the least bothered by using as many as 27 syllables for his version, demonstrating that content matters more than form.
        Speaking of syllables, on page 78, Aitken refers to one of Bashō’s poems as being 8-8-5, and says that Bashō was “too upset at saying farewell . . . to remember the rules.” That seems to be a far-reaching speculation at best. Aitken doesn’t mention any reason for Bashō not “remembering” the rules for several other poems he translates that are also not 5-7-5 in Japanese (such as on pages 72, 73, 74, and 76, just for a few in close proximity to the one on page 78). Furthermore, I doubt Bashō ever “forgot” the rules but internalized them. Indeed, I believe he valued poetic expression ahead of so-called “rules.” He simply said what needed to be said. Bashō used haiku; he was not used by it.
        Throughout this book, readers become acquainted or reacquainted with many exemplary haiku. The glosses provided with each poem are at times personal, at times historical, cultural, and factual. Most importantly, though, they are acts of sharing. Near the end of The River of Heaven, in the section on Shiki, Aitken presents the following poem (page 189): “His hands full of basket clams / he joyfully calls / his bosom pal.” He immediately notes that “Human experience is only meaningful when it is shared.” This is perhaps more true for haiku than any other kind of poetry, because it dwells so strongly on human experience. In the very first sentence of The Haiku Handbook (New York, McGraw-Hill, 1985), William J. Higginson wrote that the primary purpose of haiku is to share them. I am grateful for Robert Aitken’s enthusiastic sharing of poems in The River of Heaven, together with his rich personal and cultural perspectives. It is a book where the author joyfully calls each of us as readers to share in the transcendent joys of haiku.


Robert Aitken was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania on 19 June 1917 and died in Honolulu, Hawaii at the age of 93 on 5 August 2010. In addition to the two poems mentioned in my review, eighteen others that Aitken wrote (not one of which is 5-7-5) are included in an essay titled “A Garland of Haiku,” which appears in The Morning Star: New and Selected Zen Writings (Washington, D.C.: Shoemaker & Hoard, 2003). The book’s first sentence says that “R. H. Blyth opened the door of Zen for me” (xi), and in the haiku essay Aitken reports that, when he was in an internment camp in Kobe during World War II (where he met Blyth), he occupied his time by reading An Anthology of Haiku: Ancient and Modern by A
satarō Miyamori. As a result, Aitken says he “was inspired to try my hand at writing haiku in English” (209). The following is an example poem from his 1942–45 internment camp years (208):

                People moving
                through the steady rain
                within themselves

Aitken had quoted the preceding poem in The River of Heaven, but there it was altered (I would say improved) by changing “moving” to “walking.” The later version also includes a concluding period. Aside from poems written by Japanese Americans, it is extremely rare to find haiku written by Americans at this time. After the wave of haiku writing that occurred around the 1910s and early 1920s in response to Imagism, haiku writing in English waned until a resurgence during the Beat era of the 1950s. A
itken’s poems from the World War II years are among the earliest post-Imagist haiku written in English.
        Aitken returned to Japan in the fall of 1950 (with Blyth’s help), where he studied Zen with Sōen Nakagawa, who was also well known as a haiku poet (Kazuaki Tanahashi translated many selections of Sōen’s haiku in Endless Vow: The Zen Path of Sōen Nakagawa, Boston: Shambhala, 1996). To help arrange his study, Aitken had written the following poem at the end of a letter to 
Sōen, although the original had said temple instead of autumn (212):

                The train whistle
                the same tone
                autumn bell

Sōen replied in a telegram with a haiku (212):

                Beneath red maple leaves
                at our mountain temple
                I await you

At Sōen’s monastery in Mishima, south of Tokyo, Aitken says, with Sōen’s encouragement, “I wrote the occasional haiku” (213). One may wonder how long he continued to do this, nor is it clear whether these poems were originally written in Japanese or English. Here’s a poem from this time (213):

                A camellia falls
                the Bashō scroll
                moves a little

Aitken reports that Sōen liked this poem and “submitted it with a few of my other efforts to the haiku journal Shinsetsu (New Snow), which duly published them” (213). This anecdote would suggest that the poems were surely in Japanese, but perhaps they had been translated from English. Aitken also included the preceding poem in The River of Heaven, but in a version that seems less strong:

                A camellia flower falls
                and the Bashō scroll
                quivers a little.

I prefer the use of “quivers” over “moves,” but the other major change is problematic. This version’s inclusion of “and” removes the two-part juxtapositional structure that haiku relies on to create “ma” or space in the poem, equivalent to using a cutting word in Japanese haiku. Many of Aitken’s poems in the “Garland of Haiku” essay also lack a juxtapositional structure, such as “The mountain darkens / with the chirping / of a nearby cricket” (209), “Butterflies float / through the hanging / cedar branches” (211), and “Silently / the ridges fade / into the mist” (211). Some of them feel especially flat, as in “The caterpillar / was still moving / through the grass.” (211; this poem includes a concluding period, too, unlike all the others). This one-part structure is typical of nearly all of the haiku in Aitken’s essay, and while one-part haiku do exist in Japanese haiku (equivalent to having the cutting word at the end of the poem), this choice is not common, and many of Aitken
s poems could have benefited by employing juxtaposition. Furthermore, several of his poems have three parts (usually avoided in haiku), as in “The station at evening / no one gets off or on / spring breeze” (213) and “Spring mist / Pine Harp Pavilion / the name too is peaceful” (213–214). All of these poems appear to have been written in 1951 or earlier, and Aitken may not yet have refined his understanding of the juxtapositional structure of haiku. In his book of Bashō’s haiku, A Zen Wave, though, published in 1978, he does refer to cutting words, and discusses them at some length.
        If examples exist of haiku by Aitken written after 1951, I do not know of them, although at least one strained variation of a Bashō haiku appears in A Zen Wave, presumably by Aitken: “The old pond has no walls; / a frog just jumps in; / who is hearing that sound?” (quoted in The Morning Star, 91). I’ve recently learned that haiku poet Howard Lee Kilby studied Zen with Aitken in Hawaii, and received a manuscript copy of Aitken’s A Zen Wave before it was published, but he does not recall Aitken sharing any of his own haiku. But one hopes that there are many more, and it would be a pleasure to see them. They are surely an extension of Aitken’s Zen practice, rather than intended for purely literary purposes, but these poems, if they exist, and if they could be collected, would solidify Robert Aitken as a pioneer of English-language haiku—and one of the very few, along with James W. Hackett, with direct personal interaction with R. H. Blyth.
        The following are various links about Aitken for anyone interested in learning more about him.
—9, 10 November 2018