A Cup of Shibui

Haiku was known among avant-garde circles in the West prior to World War II, in large part due to Curtis Hidden Page’s groundbreaking Japanese Poetry (1923).  After the global conflict ended, undergraduates stocked the shelves of academic libraries with volume after volume of R. H. Blyth’s histories of the form.  Despite these beginnings, haiku did not become familiar to a wider English-speaking audience until the first of the four slim Peter Pauper Press editions appeared in 1955, followed by anthologies assembled by Harold G. Henderson (An Introduction to Haiku, 1958), and Harold Stewart (A Net of Fireflies, 1960). [1]

The English poet James Kirkup was one of the earliest Western practitioners of the craft.  In January of 1960, The New Yorker published a ten-haiku sequence by Kirkup of a romance grown cold.  The end of the affair:

Snow falls, slowly falls
On our separated hands
With the same cold kiss.

I lie here alone,
Close my eyes, but only hear
The wind in the snow.

I dreamed you were here.
The garden gently melted,
But woke deep in ice.

When will the garden
Be green again with mosses?
Our love with new grass?[2]

Elizabeth Gordon, the editor of the American interior design magazine House Beautiful, felt the Eastern wind blowing sooner than most arbiters of taste, fashion and literature.   Over the span of five years and seven trips, Gordon spent 16 months in Japan in the late 1950s.  Her travels there laid the foundation for a landmark two-issue report on Japanese culture published by the magazine in August and September of 1960.

Described as ‘[one] of the most influential issues ever by a design magazine,’ the August issue carried articles on Japanese food, gardens, music, and other topics.[3]  John deKoven Hill’s review of Japanese art especially stood out:

In Japan, where the mind and the emotions of man were not divorced from the natural scene, a special atmosphere of appreciation encouraged a more and more highly developed artistic expression.  For centuries the Japanese considered aesthetic nourishment as vital as food.  For such a sensitive audience, artists could omit spelling out the obvious and tedious details.  What may appear to us at first glance as restraint and simplicity in composition and content is really bold directness, free of irrelevant details.

“Stylized” and “conventionalized” are not the right words for this subtle imagery.  Both imply the simplification or translation of the outward form.  The Japanese expression is not simplification for its own sake but an effort to go beyond realism to interpret a deeper understanding of the subject than mere outward form can convey.  This was done by the greatest Japanese masters with a few deft lines or strokes of the brush, like a few well-chosen words as compared to flowery oratory. [4]

Another article discusses the temporal subjects of wabi and sabi. Wabi means humble—humble by choice, not by necessity,’ the article quotes a museum curator. ‘It means normal, wholesome and healthy—no overdoing.  In design, it means nothing is over-emphasized or extravagant or exaggerated.’ The writer summarizes that the ‘humility in wabi…springs from the knowledge that with the bloom of time comes the first embrace of oblivion.’

Sabi, the author continues, emits a calm and peaceful atmosphere.  A Japanese garden ‘has sabi because it looks as if nature has taken it from the gardener, as if time itself had removed all traces of the care and effort that went into making it.  The visitor who opens its gates has the almost magical experience of entering a world other than his own, one in which time seems to stand still.’ [5]  

This emphasis on the moment is better understood within the context of historical time keeping in Japan.  Day and night were the primary periods.  Each was divided into six parts.  As the length of days and nights lengthened and shortened during the year, so did the six parts of each. Japan’s clockmakers had the difficult and unique job of matching the length of a period of time to the pace of the seasons. [6]

Wabi and sabi both express imperfection as a ‘poetic melancholy’ often found in haiku, ‘evoked by such things as the rust on an iron kettle, the lichens on the rocks, the fallen blossom, the moon obscured by mist, the withered branch on a living tree.’ [7]

Haiku could be found in the woodcuts in the art gallery, and haiku could be found in the brass work in the timekeeper’s shop, and the magazine discovered haiku on the printed page almost anywhere it went.   With translations attributed to Blyth, Henderson, and Page, the magazine presented a selection to its American readers, including:

Dewdrops, limpid small—
   and such a lack of judgment shown
       in where they fall!


Did it yell
   till it became all voice?


The sound of the scouring
   of the saucepan blends
      with the tree frogs’ voices.


For me who go
   for you who stay
      two autumns.


The moon in the water
   turned a somersault
      and floated away.


Leaning against the tree
   branches and leaves are few
      a night of stars.


Elizabeth Gordon chose a word for the essence of Japanese culture: Shibui.  A later writer defined the term to embody seven qualities:  simplicity, implicitness, modesty, silence, naturalness, everydayness, and imperfection.[9]   

According to Gordon herself, ‘Shibui describes a profound, unassuming, quiet feeling. A shibui thing (or person) is unobtrusive and unostentatious. It may have hidden attainments, but they are not paraded or displayed. An object with shibui is simple in form and this simplicity must have been arrived at with an economy of means…A complicated or contrived thing could never be shibui.’ [10]   

Nothing exemplifies shibui more than the Tea Ceremony.  ‘Tea is a work of art,’ ceremony master Okakura Kakuzō wrote. ‘Each preparation of the leaves has its individuality, its special affinity with water and heat, its hereditary memories to recall, its own method of telling a story.’ [11]

The tea room, decorated with flowers and simple objects, allowed the host and guest to create an oasis free from the noise and chaos and sadness of everyday life; the ceremony itself “is an exercise in awareness,” the magazine testified, “a sharpening of the senses to discover depths of beauty which may not be apparent on the surface of things.” [12]

One Westerner who knew his way around a tea room was Bernard Leach, often referred to as ‘the father of British studio pottery.’  Leach, who spent many years in Japan exploring the culture and arts of the eight islands, once wrote:

A man of Tea is a person of perception who makes Tea, or drinks tea and enjoys all that pertains to a tea-room with a peculiar and fine sense of discrimination.  He has an attitude towards the life around him which has grown out of Zen Buddhism, or tea was in the first place the aesthetic relaxation of the monks.  It is not a pursuit of the extraordinary so much as the discovery of truth and beauty in the ordinary.[13]

In 1962, on the fifth of his trips to Japan, Leach chanced upon what first seemed like a startling discovery—a spectacular trove of 160 ceramics and eight notebooks in the town of Sano covering a period of 15 months of the life of Ogata Kenzan, a towering figure in the long history of Japanese pottery-making.[14]  There were immediate allegations that the items were fakes, but Leach was convinced of their authenticity.[15]

The pottery is now regarded as forgeries by most but not all critics[16]; the notebooks contained designs, descriptions of his work and materials, and stories of Kenzan’s hosts in Sano, characterized as Men of Tea, poetry, painting and pottery.  Nostalgic waka and haiku punctuated almost every page. Written by Kenzan or not, the poetry maintains a certain merit of its own.  As translated by Leach:

The flowers of summer are gathered in festival;
How pleasant a quiet cup of sake.

A man leading a horse,
The autumn wind blows through its mane.

A priest sweeps pine needles
In cold autumn rain.

Over the notes of a flute,
The light snow falls.

From out of dead trees
Circle the rooks;
The moon takes their place.

The snows are melting
On the hills,
Nightingales sing again
As they did in Kyoto.

And one that Leach suggested was a self-portrait of the potter:

Amongst a group of willows
There is always one that does not sway with the breeze.[17]

Leach was often criticized for his unwavering defense of the Sano ceramics as true works by Kenzan.  According to one account, late in his life with his eyesight failing, the British potter stated he did not need to see a Sano piece to know it was an original—he could feel its authenticity in his heart.[18]

Kenzan’s lifetime overlapped those of Bashō and other early haiku poets.  Kenzan knew the work of the poets and the poets knew of his; Richard L. Wilson, Kenzan’s  biographer, mused that he may have even met Bashō.[19]  It seems unlikely that these two giants could have met without one or the other referencing the event somewhere in their works.  Lines Kenzan inscribed on one of his plates of plum blossoms certainly evoke Chiyo-ni’s celebrated haiku on a trailing vine. 


Contained within a single root,
The power to blossom again.[20]


A hundred different gourds
From the mind
Of one vine.[21]

Whether the plums or the pumpkins came first is of limited importance.  The potter and the poetess were both tending the same garden.

More than sixty years have passed since Hill and Gordon reported on Japanese traditions and customs.  But even with the passage of time, their observations—and the presence of wabi and sabi within the cup of tea—still offer guidance for the writing of haiku as valuable as any that can be composed.  A reader will feel the ‘authenticity in the heart’ in the lines of the writer who genuinely seeks shibui in his or her work. The reward is mutually beneficial to each participant in the experience.

Russell Streur

Presence 77, November 2023

[1] Trumbull, Charles, ‘The American Haiku Movement Part I:  Haiku in English’, https://www.modernhaiku.org/, Modern Haiku 36.3, Autumn 2005, https://www.modernhaiku.org/essays/AmHaikuMovement1.html, Accessed 14 February 2023

[2] Kirkup, James, Ten Haiku, The New Yorker, 9 January 1960, 30

[3] House Beautiful, Volume 102, Number 8, August 1960; P. Gaye Tapp, ‘thinking Shibui’, littleaugury.blogpspot.com, 8 June 2011, http://littleaugury.blogspot.com/2011/06/thinking-shibui.html, accessed February 9, 2023

[4] John deKoven Hill, ‘The Power of the Unfinished Statement’, House Beautiful, 100

[5] ‘The Bloom of Time called wabi and sabi’,  House Beautiful, 96—97

[6] ‘History of the Japanese Horological Industry’, Japan Clock & Watch Association, https://www.jcwa.or.jp/en/etc/history01.html#h1, accessed 10 February 2023

[7] ‘We invite you to enter a new dimension:  Shibui’, House Beautiful, 95

[8] ‘Japan’s unique poetry of awareness—Haiku’, House Beautiful, 84—85

[9] Tapp

[10] ‘We invite you to enter a new dimension:  Shibui’, House Beautiful, 88

[11] Kakuzo Okakura, The Book of Tea, Boston and London, Shambhala, 1993, p. 17

[12] ‘What is the tea ceremony?’, House Beautiful, 8

[13] Leach, Bernard, Kenzan and His Traditions:  The Life and Times of Koetsu, Sotatsu, Korin and Kenzan, London, Faber and Faber, 1966, p. 79

[14] Leach, B, ‘Kenzan and the Men of Tea’,  The Observer, 12 August 1962, p. 18

[15] Letters to the Editor, The Observer, August 26, 1962, p. 24

[16] Palmer, David M S, ‘Re-making Tradition: Leach in Japan’, from Ceramics Art & Perception (September 1, 2013) through The Free Library https://www.thefreelibrary.com/Re-making+tradition%3a+leach+in+Japan.-a0345619306, accessed February 26, 2023

[17] Leach, Bernard, Kenzan and His Traditions, pp. 119, 122, 126, 129, 135; Leach, The Observer

[18] Hatcher, Gary C., ‘Heroes, Myth and Bernard Leach’, The Studio Potter, Volume 27, Number 2, June 1999, through https://www.pinemills.com/Articles/studiopotterbl2.html, accessed 28 February, 2023

[19] Wilson, Richard L., The Art of Ogata Kenzan:  Persona and Production in Japanese Ceramics, New York, Weatherhill, 1991, p. 136—137

[20] Kawahara, Masahiko, The Ceramic Art of Ogata Kenzan, Tokyo, Kodansha International Ltd. And Sibundo, 1985, p. 31

[21] Blyth, R. H., Haiku Volume IV: Autumn/Winter, Brooklyn, NY, Angelico Press, 2021, p. 124

Russell Streur

Holder of two awards for excellence from the Georgia Poetry Society, Streur is the author of Fault Zones (Blue Hour Press, 2017) and his work is included in the anthology of Georgia poetry Stone, River, Sky (Negative Capability Press, 2015).  He is currently the editor of the on-line eco-poetic journal, Plum Tree Tavern, located at https://theplumtreetavern.blogspot.com/