Go to Reviews Main.
     Go to Renku Home.

Higginson Reviews

Maintained by William J. Higginson

Haiku Women Rising

Patricia Donegan and Yoshie Ishibashi, editors and translators, Chiyo-ni: Woman Haiku Master, Charles E. Tuttle Co, 280 pp., $14.95 paperback.

Reviewed by William J. Higginson

"Woman haiku master" may strike our ears a little strangely, but the subtitle of this omnibus volume is more than adequately justified by the riches included herein. Chiyo (-jo or -ni, take your pick) was truly a great haiku master, worthy of study in and for herself and for her pivital role as the best-known woman in the history of Japanese haiku. Here we have not only a representative selection of 100 of her haiku, but the only extant haibun (complete), a substantial section of renku, and, perhaps best of all, a 40-page biography and 20-some pages discussing her art.

Until now, the anti-female bias of Japanese society, carried forward deliberately by R. H. Blyth and perhaps unwittingly by Harold G. Henderson and others, has kept our knowledge of this important poet to a minimum. Critics both Japanese and Western have dismissed her with biographical notes such as "Her father was a paper hanger. There is a rumor that she married a foot soldier of the Kanazawa clan. Became a nun when she was 51 years old." (Nakimaro Hirose, Excellent Haiku of Japan in the Edo Period) or comments like "Her verses are nearly all tainted with subjectivity." (Blyth, A History of Haiku, vol. 1) Donegan and Ishibashi have produced, finally, precisely what is needed to set this record straight. This team was selected to create English translations for a bilingual volume of Chiyo-ni's haiku published by her hometown of Matto, so perhaps Chiyo-ni's extensive and well-earned reputation during her lifetime continues to rise in Japan. Were the present book as widely read as it should be, that reputation will certainly skyrocket in English-speaking countries.

In the preface to Chiyo-ni we find a passage that should speak to all haiku poets of whatever place or time:

Appreciate each moment; that's all there really is. Be simple. Let my haiku teach you how. Openness is all you need to understand my haiku. Just be open to each ringing of the bell, each kiss, each pain, each word, each wind. Follow the fearless path of white light, which covers everything, washes everything clean and white and illuminated like clear water--drink the sweet water!
These words come from dreams of Chiyo-ni that Donegan had while working on the translations for this book. Whether we consider them a revelation of Chiyo-ni or the subconscious thoughts of a translator immersed in her work, they ring true as a guide to the way of haiku. 

Donegan asserts that Chiyo-ni was admired in her own time for her adherence to the way of haiku as lived by Bashô. Humility and a devotion to poetry and aesthetics seem to have characterized her life as much as his. She also was close to Bashô as a disciple first of his important student Shikô and later of a second-generation Bashô disciple Otsuyu. These credentials are enough to indicate her prominence, but her popularity is also shown by the fact that her portrait was frequently created in the wood-block prints of the great artists Utamaro, Toyokuni, and Kuniyoshi.

Donegan's presentation of the background of haiku and its place in Japanese culture is informed both by the research of her co-translator, Yoshie Ishibashi, and by Donegan's time as a personal student of Seishi Yamaguchi, reigning master of Japanese haiku during the late 1980s. Herself a practicing Buddhist, Donegan deftly puts those who see Zen as haiku and haiku as Zen in their respective places: ". . . to search for the 'Zen mystery' in every haiku is a mistake; to do so would take away their personal, subjective flavor. Objectivity in haiku has often been overemphasized in the West. Often Japanese warn against the limits of looking at haiku from only a Zen perspective, saying that haiku is much more ordinary." She goes on to demonstrate the social function of haiku as a "greeting verse" in such poems as Chiyo-ni's salutation to a visiting friend:

chiri ni shikikeri
kesa no yuki
just for now
I spread the morning snow
over the dust

Further, Donegan lays out some of the politics of haikai during Chiyo'ni's lifetime, noting in passing that Buson invited her to write the preface to one of his anthologies, the last in fact that he supervised before his death, even though he had earlier criticized her haiku for women's-style emotionalism.

Despite the "subjectivity" that "taints" Chiyo-ni's verses, Donegan and Ishibashi have no trouble finding clear, objective verses for the main haiku section in their book: 

wakakusa ya
kirema kirema ni
mizu no iro
green grass—
between, between the blades
the color of the water
chôchô ya
onago no michi no
ato ya saki
a butterfly
in front and back
of the woman's path
asa yû ni
shizuku no futoru
konome kana
morning and evening
the dew swells
on the buds

At the same time, however, a delicate femininity blesses some of these verses while others show that, like Ono no Komachi and Yosano Akiko in waka and tanka, respectively, Chiyo-ni was able to express a deep sensuality in her haikai verses:

musubô to
tokô to kaze no
yanagi kana
to tangle or untangle
the willow—
it's up to the wind
ne o tsukete
onago no yoku ga
woman's desire
deeply rooted—
the wild violets
akebono no
wakare wa motanu
hiina kana
dawn's separation
to dolls

Each of the 100 haiku in Chiyo-ni is presented on its own page in Japanese, romaji, and translation, along with notes on the season words and other phenomena in the poems which will help the reader to understand them. The note on the last example above, for instance, says 

Written for the Hinamatsuri or "The Doll's Festival," a traditional holiday for girls held on March third. Chiyo-ni uses the image of the doll to heighten the contrast of human sorrow in lovers' separation. . . .
and goes on to quote another haiku illustrating her sensitivity to matters of love. (For those uninitiated to the origin of the dolls, I add that they represent the Heian court--emperor, empress, and high officials; courtly lovers typically separated just before dawn and did not see each other during the day. The dolls, however, stay together throughout the holiday.) 

I would have appreciated knowing when the poems were written, in order to get a sense of the arc of Chiyo-ni's career similar to that available with regard to Bashô in Makoto Ueda's incomparable Bashô and His Interpreters, but the seasonal arrangement of the poems brings out Chiyo-ni's life-long fascination with such subjects as the willow, clear water, and the like. Perhaps further studies of her work will give us more insight into her development through time. 

Meanwhile, we must be grateful that Donegan and Ishibashi include also examples of Chiyo-ni's linked poems ranging from tanrenga (two stanzas composed by two poets) to three renku, two in twelve stanzas each, and one thirty-six-stanza kasen. Also, a number of hokku specifically used as greetings are included in this section.

To demonstrate Chiyo-ni's skill at renku, we may look at a pair of her tsukeai, the "links" between stanzas upon which linked-verse writing depends: 

     usugi no hito ni
     fuyu wa chikayoru

karigane mo

     winter comes toward
     the ones in light clothes

geese also
ride together
on the ferryboat



          * * *           * * *
funagoe no
kokoro mo karû
fune no ashi

     yaki-ii no hara no
     mujô jinsoku

with light hearts—
the ship's motion

     toasted rice balls—
     disappear, so soon




In each of these pairs, Chiyo skillfully blends her stanza with the preceding, but at the same time shifts the feelings involved. In the first, she rises to the challenge of adding to the very late autumn image of "winter getting close" (fuyu chikayoru) and the implied threat to those still in light-weight summer garb with the equally late image of just-arrived geese, exhausted from their flight, resting on the ferryboat. The particle mo ("also") provides a direct grammatical link with the previous verse, but otherwise the entire link depends on the "scent" (nioi) of one verse connecting with that of the next--the technique so much prized by Bashô.

In the second pair, from a kasen by Chiyo-ni and her close disciple and friend Shisenjo, has moved away from a suggestion of danger in the prior verses to a sense of quiet abandon in the lulling rhythms of a boat at sea. Chiyo-ni responds with a tasty treat, such as one might enjoy in such a setting, but notes that it--like life--is only a thing of the moment. 

This is the heart of Donegan and Ishibashi's book. Like Bashô, Chiyo-ni was a spiritual person who invested her writing with a richness that almost transcends art. Whether she is deeply focused on nature, warmly greeting a friend, or joining happily in group composition, she gives herself to the moment and to the situations that arise, like bubbles in a pond, knowing they will burst in a second, but how beautiful they are meanwhile.

One other outstanding feature of Chiyo-ni is the frequent mention of the poet's female colleagues. A whole group of poets practically invisible in English begins to come to light here. The authors state that they wish to make an anthology of haiku by women of the Bashô circle, and we can only wish them godspeed with such an important undertaking. 

Chiyo-ni is replete with excellent footnotes, glossary, and bibliography enough to satisfy the most demanding scholar. But ultimately this is a poets' book. Donegan had established herself as an up an coming American poet before studying with Seishi a dozen years ago, and taught haiku and other poetry at Naropa Institute along with Allen Ginsberg before beginning on the Chiyo-ni project. Ishibashi was Donegan's translator during her sessions with Seishi, and comes from a family long steeped in Japanese art and literature. In this book the former's sensitivity to the nuances of English is well-matched with the latter's scholarship; both have obviously come to love their subject. They have given us a good look at the range of Chiyo-ni's accomplishments as a poet--which clearly should shame the generations of males who have denegrated her work by dismissive asides or silence. I certainly hope that other great women masters of haikai, such as Chigetsu-ni, Sute-jo, Sono-jo, and Chine-jo of Bashô's day, Kikusha-ni who wrote haikai with Issa and various Buddhist masters as well as tanka and poetry in Chinese, and the many truly great women haiku masters of the twentieth century, such as Teijo Nakamura, Kanajo Hasegawa, Ayako Hosomi, Takako Hashimoto, Nobuko Katsura, and Mizue Yamada, to name but a few, will all become available to us in works as carefully and lovingly crafted as Donegan and Ishibashi's Chiyo-ni. For now, let us savor the deep riches in this sensitive and long overdue beginning.

This review originally appeared under the title “Woman Haiku Master” in Modern Haiku, XXX:1 (Winter-Spring, 1999). A much briefer version appeared in The Santa Fe New Mexican, July 25, 1999, under the present title.

This page first posted 13 May 2006 and last updated 13 May 2006. Copyright © 1999, 2002, 2006by William J. Higginson. All rights reserved. No material from this web site may be copied on other web sites or produced in printed copies, or otherwise reproduced except by permission of the author in writing. Please do not e-mail copies of this web page; rather, just send the URL: http://wjhigginson.home.att.net/Chiyo.html.
Contact William J. Higginson at wordfield-at-att-dot-net, substituting "@" for "-at-" and "." for "-dot-".
Go to Reviews Main.
     Go to Renku Home.