Amy LOWELL and Haiku



It is instructive to contrast Lowell’s florid style, highly emotional language, and syntactically complicated sentences with the most compact and cooler imagist poems of Amy Lowell, whose interest in Japan was sparked by her brother’s travels.

    ……David STRAUSS 

Amy LOWELL (1874 – 1925) was the youngster “postscript” sister of Percival LOWELL (1855 – 1916), and has been known as one of the modern American poets. She wrote a first poem when she was 9 years of age, while she entered the poet world in 1902, and became an iconoclast cigar-smoking poet. Amy was posthumously awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1926, a year after her sudden death.


Amy’s name has been known in Japan as a translator’s of some Chinese poems in the Tang dynasty, with the names of Ezra POUND, H A GILES and others, as often referred by the late Professor Kohjiroh YOSHIKAWA and others. Amy did not read Chinese, but was helped by Florence AYSCOUGH who had been raised in China. The translations are published in Fir-Flower Tablets: Poems from the Chinese (Boston; Houghton Mifflin, 1921) whose inside cover reads “Poems translated from the Chinese by Florence Ayscough of the Royal Asiatic Society. English versions by Amy Lowell, Author of “Legends”, “Pictures of the Floating World” etc.


The set of words “pictures of the floating world” is a direct, but commonly accepted translation of Ukiyo-E, and Amy’s poems in her collection “Pictures of the Floating World” (NY, Macmillan Co, 1919) are so more or less concerned with Japanese-like images. Amy did however never come to Japan, but as suggested as above by David STRAUSS, she must have received an influence from Percival and his writings. As well, Amy went to London around 1913 to see the imagist Ezra POUND who had a certain appreciation to the Oriental literatures, especially something about Haiku and Noh.


The following are from the Pictures of the Floating World:




Being thirsty,

I filled a cup with water,

And, behold!  Fuji-yama lay upon the water

Like a dropped leaf!




Once, in the sultry heat of midsummer,

An Emperor caused the miniature mountains in his garden

To be covered with white silk,

That so crowned,

They might cool his eyes

With the sparkle of snow.




A wise man,

Watching the stars pass across the sky,


In the upper air the fireflies move more slowly.



Otherwise, Amy’s Pictures of the Floating World contains a lot of short lyrics that really look like Haiku: For example

Autumn Haze

Is it a dragon fly or maple leaf

That settles softly down upon the water?


Ezra POUND’s imagism is said to have been influenced by the 17-syllable Haiku, as often pointed out, by a superposition of two images put in a short verse form as seen in the following famous Haiku by Moritaké ARAKIDA (1473 – 1549): The fallen blossom flies back to its branch: A butterfly. (It’s said that some eleven kinds of English translations of the original exist). Amy’s Autumn Haze as above employs dragonfly instead of butterfly, and leaf instead of petal, and gives quite poetically a soft image of landing upon the water. But the image of water is not quite the same as the image that sounds in the well-known Haiku of Basho MATSUO (1644 – 1694):

The ancient pond

A frog leaps in

The sound of the water              


The translation here of “Furuike ya” is the one given by Donald KEENE when he was quite young, and we here want to quote some long passages of KEENE which illustrate the characteristics of Japanese Haiku and at the same time criticise Amy LOWELL’s Haiku.


The images used by Basho in capturing the moment of truth were most often visual, as in the haiku about the frog, or the equally famous:


kareeda ni            On the withered branch

karasu no tomarikeri     A crow has alighted -----

aki no kure          Nightfall in autumn.


This verse presents so sharp an image that it has often been painted. But Basho did not rely exclusively on visual images; the moment might equally well be perceived by one of other senses:


shizukasa ya          Such stillness -----

iwa ni shimiiru            The cries of the cicadas

semi no koe            Sink into the rocks.


And sometimes the senses were mingled in a surprising modern way:


umi kurete            The sea darkens,

kamo no koe                The cries of the seagulls

honoka ni shirosi       Are faintly white.


As these examples indicate, the haiku, for all its extreme brevity, must contain two elements, usually divided by a break marked by what the Japanese call a “cutting word” (kireji). One of the elements may be the general condition – the end of autumn, the stillness of the temple grounds, the darkening sea – and the other the momentary perception. The nature of the elements varies, but there should be the two electric poles between which the spark will leap for the haiku to be effective; otherwise it is no more than a brief statement. That is the point which has been missed by such Western imitators of the haiku form as Amy Lowell, who saw in the haiku its brevity and suggestion, but did not understand the methods by which the effects were achieved. Here are two of Miss Lowell’s haiku:


              A Lover

   If I could catch the green lantern of firefly

   I could see to write you a letter.


             To a Husband

   Brighter than the fireflies upon the Uji River

   Are your words in the dark, Beloved.


In these examples the words are poetic, but the verses do not have the quality of a haiku, for the reason I have given. …….

         (Donald KEENE, Japanese Literature –

An Introduction for Western Readers, 1955)


Professor KEENE however admits that Miss LOWELL’s best Haiku are found among the ones on modern themes in What’s O’Clock (1925).


We close by remarking two things: First let us recall again that Amy LOWELL was born in 1874, the year the Venus Transit was observed, and hence let us here quote her poem Venus Transiens that was first published in Poetry magazine in 1915:


Venus Transiens


Tell me,

Was Venus more beautiful

Than you are,

When she topped

The crinkled waves,

Drifting shoreward

On her plaited shell?

Was Botticelli's vision

Fairer than mine;

And were the painted rosebuds

He tossed his lady,

Of better worth

Than the words I blow about you

To cover your too great loveliness

As with a gauze

Of misted silver?


For me,

You stand poised

In the blue and buoyant air,

Cinctured by bright winds,

Treading the sunlight.

And the waves which precede you

Ripple and stir

The sands at my feet.


Next, and finally, let us remark that Basho is famous for his round trip of 150 days from Edo (now Tokyo) northward, on foot, and then southward along the rear side travelling a distance of 2,400 km all down to Kwansai in 1689 when he was 46 years old. A number of haiku he produced during the journey are filed in his book called “The Narrow Road to Oku.” On the occasion, he passed through Oya Shiradzu-Ko Shiradzu from north to south just 200 years before the time of Percival LOWELL: A bit after he gave the following famous haiku,

Turbulent the sea -

Across to Sado stretches

The Milky Way,

he lodged on 25 August at No, and on 26 August he walked along the dangerous seashore at Oya Shiradzu and arrived at Ichiburi in the evening.


Basho died at the age of 51 at Osaka, and was buried at Otsu, facing to the Biwa Lake. The last haiku he made on his deathbed was

Stricken on a journey,

My dreams go wandering round

Withered fields.

Masatsugu MINAMI, CMO Fukui

Back to the Lowell Page Home


Back to the CMO Home Page

Back to the Façade