Sōseki, Not Buson:
Attributing the White Chrysanthemum
First published in Lost Pinwheel, the 2019 Yuki Teikei Haiku Society members’ anthology, pages 84–89. Originally written March to October 2018, with revisions in May of 2019. See the new postscript at the end. See also “Buson or Shiki: The True Authorship of the ‘Two Autumns’ Poem.”
“Translation is the art of failure.” ―Umberto Eco
Some years ago I came across conflicting attributions for the following favourite haiku, the namesake poem for the Haiku Poets of Northern California’s Two Autumns Press and for its decades-long Two Autumns reading series:
yuku ware ni todomaru nare ni aki futatsu
for me going
for you staying—
For many years I thought this haiku was by Buson, but it is actually by Shiki. You can read an extended exploration of this attribution error in my essay, “Buson or Shiki: The True Authorship of the ‘Two Autumns’ Poem” (published in A Hundred Gourds in 2014 and also on my website), in which I point to R. H. Blyth as the earliest source of the inaccuracy. As I speculated in that essay, there might well be other attribution errors in Blyth’s work, and I’ve now found an additional example, regarding another famous haiku. For years I’ve admired the following poem, which I always thought was by Buson. It is actually by Natsume Sōseki:
shiragiku ni shibashi tayutou hasami kana
Before the white chrysanthemum,
The scissors hesitate
Blyth attributes his translation to Buson in Haiku, Volume 4 (Tokyo: Hokuseido Press, 1952, 1982 [paperback]), page 1119. The preceding is also how Blyth presents the Japanese and romaji, but it is not quite the same as what is associated with Sōseki as his poem, which is as follows (differences from the Blyth version underlined):
shiragiku ni shibashi tamerau hasami kana
In the preceding text, “逡巡らふ” (tamerau) differs from “たゆたふ” (tayutou) in Blyth’s version. Both tayutou and tamerau mean to hesitate. In addition, “鋏” (hasami) in the second version is an older way of saying “はさみ” (also hasami), which means scissors—the second uses kanji (Chinese-based characters), and the first, Blyth’s version, uses hirigana (Japanese syllabary). My understanding is that the meanings of both poems hardly differ, certainly not enough for one to be an allusive variation of the other, but these text differences might still be a clue to Blyth’s misattribution, even if the mystery might never be solved. We no longer have a way of knowing Blyth’s source, and an exhaustive online search for Blyth’s exact text in Japanese yields only four hits, none of which is a reliable Japanese source (for example, one of them is simply quoting Blyth). In contrast, a search for the exact phrase of “白菊にしばし逡巡らふ鋏かな” (the text I quoted second, not from Blyth) yields more than a hundred hits, nearly all reliable Japanese sources that point to Sōseki. So surely the poem is Sōseki’s.
Or is it? My thanks to Emiko Miyashita for helping me find the following definitive evidence of the poem being written by Sōseki. At the “Sōseki Haikushu” (book of collected poems) website, it says that Sōseki wrote the poem in Meiji 37, or 1904. The poem was part of a series of ten haiku inspired by Shakespeare, this one relating to Othello. According to the Haiku Daily blog, one of numerous other sites online where the poem is attributed to Sōseki, the poem relates to Othello Act 5, Scene 2, and specifically to these lines: “Yet I’ll not shed her blood, / Nor scar that whiter skin of hers than snow, / And smooth as monumental alabaster.” The scene’s next line, speaking of Desdemona, is “Yet she must die,” which relates to Sōseki’s poem in that we know what happens next. The scissors may hesitate a moment, but then they will cut the flower, just as surely as Othello smothered Desdemona.
In the summer of 2000, in Modern Haiku 31:2, Jon LaCure published “The Chrysanthemum and the Scissors: Natsume Sōseki’s Haiku on Scenes from Shakespeare.” I had read LaCure’s essay at the time, but I don’t recall thinking then that the poem in question was Buson’s, and had independently continued to believe it was Buson’s poem—I simply didn’t connect the dots. LaCure’s essay also became the title for his book of haiku essays, The Chrysanthemum and the Scissors: Haiku, Zen, and Traditional Japanese Verse (privately published in 2015; available on Amazon). In the title essay, LaCure makes no mention of the poem’s misattribution to Buson, which suggests that its attribution is not even a point of controversy for him—or, one can presume, the majority of his readers. Furthermore, his exploration of Sōseki’s ten poems inspired by Shakespeare underscores the poem’s provenance as Sōseki’s. LaCure translates the poem as follows (page 106), which is also reproduced on the book’s cover in a haiga by Ion Codrescu:
Over the white chrysanthemum—
for a moment they pause,
the garden shears
Sōseki’s haiku have not been translated into English nearly as often as the work of other poets, but one such book is Zen Haiku: Poems and Letters of Natsume Sōseki (New York, Weatherhill, 1994), by Sōiku Shigematsu. This book presents the following translation—attributed, obviously, to Sōseki (page 84; the book does not include the Japanese or the romaji):
My scissors for a while
Stop their motion.
So there is plenty of evidence that this poem is by Sōseki. Yet the Buson misattribution has spread widely. As with the “two autumns” poem, other translators have also attributed the “white chrysanthemum” poem to Buson incorrectly. For example, in Japanese Haiku (New York: Peter Pauper Press, 1955, published just three years after Blyth’s book), Peter Beilenson attributes the poem to Buson and translates it as follows, except that Beilenson used all capitals (page 43):
white chrysanthemum . . .
Robert Hass also perpetuated the error in The Essential Haiku (Hopewell, New Jersey: Ecco, 1994), page 121, repeating Blyth’s translation, but omitting the comma and lowercasing the last two lines. More research would no doubt uncover attributions to Buson in other sources, but I doubt that any of them predate Blyth (the poem does not appear under Buson’s or Sōseki’s name in Asatarō Miyamori’s An Anthology of Haiku Ancient and Modern, Tokyo: Maruzen, 1932, nor in Harold G. Henderson’s An Introduction to Haiku, New York: Doubleday, 1958, which was an expansion of The Bamboo Broom, New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1934). In any event, the repetition of this error by various translators suggests that they used prior translations as their sources rather than original Japanese sources. This contrasts with books of Buson translations by Yuki Sawa and Edith Shiffert and by W. S. Merwin and Takako Lento, which do not contain the “white chrysanthemum” poem—they both used original Japanese sources.
How this error came to light, at least for me, was that I was recently surprised to see the poem attributed to Sōseki when I thought it was by Buson. In early March 2018 I was reading the results and commentary for the international section of the 21st Mainichi Haiku Contest (see the PDF file), in which Pamela A. Babusci won first prize. In the commentary, she is quoted as providing two favourite haiku, the first of which was the “two autumns” poem, and the second of which was the “white chrysanthemum” poem. The Mainichi contest commentary attributed the “two autumns” poem to Shiki, which I knew to be correct, but then attributed the “white chrysanthemum” poem to Natsume Sōseki, which puzzled me, because at the time I still thought the poem was Buson’s. In fact, I wrote to Pamela and said I thought she might be in error in saying the latter poem was by Sōseki. She emailed me on 6 March 2018 to say that she “put Buson for both haiku” but that “the Japanese judges changed them both.”
This correction was my first inkling that many of us in the West have been wrong all along in thinking the “white chrysanthemum” poem is Buson’s. And of course the Mainichi contest organizers were right to make such a correction, and the change itself accentuates with authority that the poem is Sōseki’s, not Buson’s. A change such as this highlights how vulnerable we are in English to translation and attribution errors by R. H. Blyth and other early haiku translators whose work has entered our Western poetic consciousness. I suspect that errors such as these are rare, which is why this new example is worth mentioning, but the situation should remind Western readers of haiku translations to be on guard.
We may well ask what other attribution errors are lurking in Blyth’s hallowed haiku books. My understanding is that he drafted them partly while incarcerated in a prisoner-of-war camp in Japan during World War II, with his Japanese wife bringing materials to him from outside the prison when she could, and that his extensive library was entirely destroyed during an air raid during the war (the library he developed since the war was donated to D. T. Suzuki’s Matsugaoka Library in Kita Kamakura shortly after Blyth died in 1964). Blyth’s wartime circumstances might easily explain the limited availability of sources for him to check. Also, given the monumental scope of Blyth’s four-volume Haiku books, and the two-volume History of Haiku books, it is understandable that a few errors crept in. So I do not wish to hold Blyth’s feet to the fire here. However, it is clear that we cannot take Blyth’s attributions and other statements as being infallible. In this case, the “white chrysanthemum” poem is perhaps one of the better-known poems attributed to Buson, and thus among “Buson’s” most famous haiku. But it is not by Buson at all.
Until now, if I were going to quote the “white chrysanthemum” poem, I too would have attributed it to Buson, just as Pamela Babusci did. In fact, I already have. In Frogpond 18:3, Autumn 1995, page 39, I published a haibun titled “Scissors” that began by quoting this poem—attributed to Buson (an error that I’ve now corrected on my website). Both Pamela and I were victims of Blyth’s error, perpetuated by Hass, as are countless other Western readers who have previously had every reason to believe the poem was Buson’s. A search online finds thousands of links to this poem in English with attributions to Buson, so the error has spread widely—as with the “two autumns” attribution error.
To conclude, I find it intriguing that both the “two autumns” poem and the “white chrysanthemum” poem have connections to Sōseki. Shiki wrote the “two autumns” poem for Sōseki, his close friend, and the “white chrysanthemum” poem is by Sōseki. And Blyth mistakenly attributed both poems to the same erroneous author. This makes me wonder if Blyth was using some source related to Sōseki that was incorrect or if Blyth read that text (in Japanese) incorrectly. I know, too, of a classical music composition by Alexander Elliott Miller titled “Two Autumns” that also connects these two poems (both using Robert Hass’s translations, among five in Miller’s composition; the sheet music and an explanation of the texts is available in PDF form at Miller’s website). Though Miller cites Hass as providing permission for his translation, the “two autumns” poem is correctly attributed to Shiki, which suggests that Hass had offered the correction (I, perhaps among others, had alerted Hass to the “two autumns” error, and Hass acknowledged the error to me in May of 2010). But the “white chrysanthemum” poem is incorrectly listed as being by Buson. In any case, this is a further example of a connection between these two poems. Indeed, it feels like something is afoot here—the entanglement of Shiki, Sōseki, and (by accident) Buson seems tantalizingly more than coincidental. We may never know. But the situation should give us pause. We can at least step forward with the understanding that this famous chrysanthemum poem is by Natsume Sōseki rather than Buson.
from the guest, the host—
halfway up the stair—
—Elizabeth Searle Lamb
Here’s another example of the misattribution of the “white chrysanthemum” poem to Buson. For the 2017–2018 exhibition of the Haiku Society of America’s “Twenty-Four Shikishi” at the California State Library in Sacramento (for which I had provided new translations), a small biographical sign for Buson quotes the poem, implying that Buson wrote it, but this is incorrect. As you can see, the same sign says that Buson wrote The Narrow Road to the Interior, which of course was written by Bashō, not in 1744 but finished in 1694, two decades before Buson was even born. Buson, however, did follow in Bashō’s footsteps and in 1744 he published his notes from taking the same trip as Bashō.
—7 September 2020
Photo by Mimi Ahearn.