Harry Behn

Harry Behn
Cover photo from “Cricket Songs”

Henry Behn (born September 24, 1898, McCade, near Prescott, Arizona, U.S.A.; died on a visit to Seville, Spain, September 6, 1973), American screenwriter, painter, photographer, writer, and translator of prose and poetry, especially for children. Behn is remembered principally for his collaboration with Peter Beilenson translating haiku for the fourth volume (1962) of the Peter Pauper Press vest-pocket-sized haiku collections and for two books of his own interpretations of Japanese classic haiku, Cricket Songs (1964) and More Cricket Songs (1971). He last resided in Greenwich, Connecticut.


Many Americans came to appreciate and write haiku through reading the small books of translations of Japanese masters in the popular Peter Pauper Press series, which had been begun by Peter Beilenson in 1955. The fourth book in this series, Haiku Harvest (1962) was completed by Harry Behn, a noted author of children’s books, and Behn went on to produce two books of his own renderings of Japanese classic haiku, equally well received by the public: Cricket Songs (1964) and More Cricket Songs (1971).

EARLY LIFE AND CAREER

Henry Behn was born September 24, 1898, in McCade, a mining camp near Prescott, Ariz. He spent his youth in mining camps and early showed a talent as an illustrator and painter. He attended high school in Phoenix, Ariz., and after graduation found work as a travelogue cameraman. He briefly enrolled in Stanford University, then attended Harvard University, graduating in 1922. He spent the following year in Sweden doing graduate study.

Shortly thereafter Behn moved back to Arizona. In the early 1920s Behn was active in community theater and about 1923 began to work in Hollywood as a scenario writer for (silent) motion pictures. He was quite successful in this line of work, collaborating with director King Vidor on films that included The Big Parade (1925) and The Crowd (1928), and with Howard Hughes on Hell’s Angels (1930). He married Alice Lawrence in Los Angeles in 1925; three children followed.

At the same time Behn was also writing for himself and in 1931 published Siesta, a book of poetry. Later he worked as an artist for the Public Works Art Project and traveled through the West, including painting trips to the Grand Canyon and to Glacier National Park, where, he relates, the Blackfoot Indians invited him to join the tribe.

HARRY BEHN, WRITER

Behn and his family settled in Tucson, Arizona, about 1938 and he immersed himself in various writing and cultural vocations at the University of Arizona. From 1938 to1947 he taught creative writing and he founded and managed the university radio bureau; he founded the University of Arizona Press in 1960. He was also active in civic affairs in Tucson and little theater in Phoenix.

In the mid-1930s Behn began writing for children and young adults.1 One account states:

Harry Behn wrote and translated poetry, especially haiku, for children and drew on the poetic heritage of Robert Louis Stevenson in his use “child’s voice” as well as what critics called “a thread of transcendentalism.” He retained his American “roots” by focusing on images and words contemporary American children would understand and emphasized the “wonder of nature” in his works and invited children to imagine “beyond” the poem.2 

The Little Hill, a collection of poetry for children, was published in 1949. Other books included The Faraway Lurs (1963), for young adults, and a guide book for teachers, Chrysalis: Concerning Children and Poetry (1968). Behn also created artwork for many of his books and won awards for his illustrations.

TRANSLATOR

Peter Beilenson’s Peter Pauper Press in Mount Vernon, N.Y., published mainly gift books, which included vest-pocket sized, woodcut-illustrated editions of Beilenson’s translations of classic Japanese haiku masters. When Beilenson died in 1962, work was not quite finished on the fourth volume, Haiku Harvest. Behn was enlisted to complete the project. A 1973 interview sheds light on Behn’s introduction to haiku: 

Haiku Harvest is Behn’s first collection of translations of Oriental haiku. He did them quickly, and when they were published he found himself dissatisfied with them. He then undertook the task of polishing and improving those same translations. For 1–1½ years he read Oriental literature and philosophy extensively to acquire a better understanding for the poems. Cricket Songs, 1964, and More Cricket Songs, 1970, are the two collections of haiku translations that resulted from his study. The poems they contain are those contained in Haiku Harvest.3

Haiku Harvest, 1962

Behn did not know Japanese, so it is all but certain that he was reprocessing texts of Japanese haiku translated by some other person. No indication has been found, however, of the first-round translations on which he based his poetic versions, nor is there any discernable relationship to the other English-language translations that had been published by the 1960s. A publisher’s blurb from Peter Pauper Press about 1960 says that Haiku Harvest was “translated into poetic English from the literal Japanese by Peter Beilenson,”4 though this is unlikely, as Beilenson knew no Japanese either.

The assertion that Behn’s two Cricket Song books contain the same haiku as those found in Haiku Harvest is true for the first volume, and that was surely the source for the 82 haiku translated in Cricket Songs. More Cricket Songs, however, contains 29 new haiku in addition to 54 from Haiku Harvest. About 50 haiku in Haiku Harvest were not picked up by Behn for either of his own solo works. Likely Beilenson and Behn had been working from a larger set of “pre-translations,” and Behn availed himself of the leftovers from the Peter Pauper Press series for More Cricket Songs. The poets whose haiku appear in the two books include the expected classical masters: 15 by Bashō, 11 by Buson, 9 by Shiki, and 4 by Issa in Cricket Songs and 12, 7, 6, and 12, respectively, in More Cricket Songs. There are as well a number of less familiar poets whose work is included in Haiku Harvest and Behn’s two solo books—e.g., Shurin [Honpō Shūrin], Rokwa [Shōnin Rōka], Chosu [Ueda Chōshū], Asayasu, and Jurin. Two haiku in Cricket Songs and one in More Cricket Songs are Behn’s own compositions:

     A spark in the sun,
this tiny flower has roots
     deep in the cool earth.


     Oh, how beautiful!
Mountains white for miles and miles
     with cherries in bloom!


     One star lingering
low in a mist as slowly
     sun warms the treetops.
.
.
Cricket Songs (1964)


.
.
Cricket Songs (1964)


.
.
More Cricket Songs (1971)

A comparison of the final volumes and the marked-up galleys of the two books show that indeed Behn made major revisions of most of the haiku from Haiku Harvest, although a few remained the same. His work, by and large, was an improvement over the earlier publication, but his emendations were not made on the basis of reference to the original Japanese (or retranslations). Rather they seem to have drawn on his own substantial skills as writer and poet. Here is one of the more transformed versions , a haiku of Onitsura’s (note that the haiku in the Peter Pauper books were set in small capitals and had a broken second line):

EVEN STONES IN STREAMS
     OF MOUNTAIN WATER
     COMPOSE
SONGS TO WILD CHERRIES

Haiku Harvest, 57
Even stones under
mountain waterfalls compose
odes to plum blossoms.


Cricket Songs, 39

For the Onitsura haiku, the Japanese is 谷水や石も歌詠む山桜 tanimizu ya ishi mo uta yomu yamazakura, where tanimizu means “ravine water” and yamazakura is “mountain cherry,” so it would appear that Behn is moving away from a more literal reading of the Japanese toward a version that sounded better to him according to English poetic criteria. By Japanese lights, the change in kigo (season word) from “mountain cherry” (late spring) to “plum blossoms” (early spring) is radical and fundamentally alters the haiku. The Japanese text does not indicate that the song or ode is written to the flowers; rather “songs” is simply a second, independent image. This is clear in R. H. Blyth’s translation, though Blyth inverts the original order of the images and uses “also” in a way that implies that both the cherry and the stones were singing:

The wild cherry:
Stones are also singing their songs
In the valley stream.

.
.
R. H. Blyth, Haiku. Volume II: Spring (1950), 330

Both of Behn’s versions here are in the “classic” 5–7–5 syllable structure, as indeed are most of the translations in his three books of haiku. Here is another much-changed translation by Behn, this one a haiku by Shiki: 月一輪星無數空緑なり tsuki ichirin hoshi mukazu sora midori kana:

ONE PERFECT MOON
     AND THE UNCOUNTABLE
     STARS
DROWNED IN A GREEN SKY

Haiku Harvest, 41
A full moon comes up,
and stars, stars uncountable,
drown in a green sky

More Cricket Songs, 30

Harold G. Henderson translates this haiku quite literally:

One full moon;
   stars numberless; the sky
      dark green.
.
.
Henderson, An Introduction to Haiku (1958), 1960.

AN APPRECIATION

Cricket Songs, 1964

Cricket Songs was Behn’s first solo book of haiku translations, and he thought of it as an adult book. A letter from his editor at Harcourt Brace & World, recorded that William Jovanovich (president and CEO of the publishing giant) had himself decided not to issue it on the adult list.5 In fact, the book proved popular with both children and adults. The blurb inside the front cover suggests that “Behn … has created a book that will delight young readers and perhaps stimulate them to write their own haiku” but at the bottom indicates the volume is for “all ages.” Cricket Songs was extremely well received by the book publishing, library, and school communities. Publishers Weekly (February 26, 1964) called it “an unusually nice gift for reader-writers age nine and up”; Book Week (May 10, 1964) reported that it was “a distinguished book, a permanent contribution to the poetry shelves; and the New York Times Book Review placed it on its list of Year’s Best for Juveniles. Reviewing the book for the New York Times (March 15, 1964), Barbara Wersba pointed out that Cricket Songs was “for all ages,” but continued that “few children will remain unmoved.” The Kirkus Bulletin (February 26, 1964) concurred: “Although the format suggests it, this is not necessarily a juvenile book.” Other positive mentions appeared in publications as diverse as Child Life (June–July 1964), the ALA Booklist (April 15, 1964), and the Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books.

More Cricket Songs was equally well received and just as widely reviewed in the mainstream and trade press. The Phoenix Republic (April 4, 1971) wrote, “The author has put years of research and study into these poems of fixed literary form,” and Kirkus (March 1, 1971) called the book “genial and inviting.” As indeed they are: both books are hardbound in a 5˝ x 7˝ format, copiously illustrated with black-and-white renderings of “pictures by Sesshu and other Japanese masters,” as it says in Cricket Songs.

On the other hand, 50 years later, Behn’s two books may be considered not to have met the test of time. In 2015, American haiku poet and elementary school teacher Brad Bennett, who teaches haiku in his classes, compiled a survey of three dozen haiku books for children and rated each one on a three-star scale. Cricket Songs and More Cricket Songs (evaluated together) garnered only one star, that is, “books that have some limited value.”6

Behn never wrote much about his understanding of Japanese haiku, so it is difficult to discern what he was trying to accomplish in his translations and publications or to understand his aesthetics. In one short passage of a letter (August 17, 1970) to his editor, however, Behn expressed his reaction to The Penguin Book of Japanese Verse, edited by Geoffrey Bownas and Anthony Thwaite:

I rushed to get their enormous collection and cannot understand how so many poems from centuries can all sound so alike. Also, to me, the text was an example of pedantry I have seldom encountered.

   Alice [Behn’s wife] asked if I was sure this is not a display of professional envy. It is not. There is a long list of so-called translators who leave the poem mired in [pidgin], or simply not penetrated at all. Millions of haiku have been and still are written. The few good ones are good only when they reveal “satori,” an illumination. Bownas & Thwaite seem intent on concealing this illumination even in the great ones.7

Behn died on September 6, 1973, while on a trip to Spain. His work was unquestionably of great influence in the popularization of haiku in America and also in advancing the teaching of haiku in schools. But Behn’s interpretations drew English-language haiku in the direction of Western poetry at the expense of Japanese aesthetics and poetics. In that sense, like Beilensen’s books and other popular collections of haiku from the 1950s and 1960s, Behn’s works helped catalyze serious Western haiku scholarship that had begun with Harold G. Henderson, R. H. Blyth, Kenneth Yasuda, and others who sought haiku’s beauty and truth through fidelity of translation.

Author: Charles Trumbull

Adapted from: “Harry Behn: Research Note.” Modern Haiku 37:3 (Autumn 2006)

SOURCES / FURTHER READING

Haiku translations

  • Beilenson, Peter, and Harry Behn, trans. Haiku Harvest. Mount Vernon, N.Y: Peter Pauper Press, 1962. Series: Japanese Haiku 4. There were at least two editions with identical text but different illustrations.
  • Behn, Harry, trans. Cricket Songs: Japanese Haiku with Pictures Selected from Sesshu and other Japanese Masters. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1964.
  • Behn, Harry, trans. More Cricket Songs: Japanese Haiku Illustrated with Pictures by Japanese Masters. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1971.

Other published works

  • Behn, Harry, author and illustrator. All Kinds of Time. New York: Harcourt, Brace [1950]. Juvenile literature.
  • Behn, Harry. Crickets and Bullfrogs and Whispers of Thunder: Poems and Pictures. San Diego: Harcourt Bruce Jovanovich, ©1984.
  • Behn, Harry. Chrysalis: Concerning Children and Poetry. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, [1968]. Essays, poems, and anecdotes concerning children and poetry. Includes a chapter about haiku.
  • Behn, Harry.The Faraway Lurs. Cleveland: World, 1963. Juvenile fiction.
  • Behn, Harry. The Golden Hive: Poems and Pictures. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1966. Children’s poetry.
  • Behn, Harry. Halloween. New York: North-South Books, 2003. Poem for children.
  • Behn, Harry.The House Beyond the Meadow. New York: Pantheon, 1955. Children’s poetry.
  • Behn, Harry.The Little Hill. New York: Harcourt, Brace,1949. Children’s poetry.
  • Behn, Harry. Omen of the Birds. Cleveland: World, 1963. Juvenile fiction.
  • Behn, Harry. The Painted Cave. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1957. Juvenile fiction.
  • Behn, Harry. Roderick. New York: Harcourt, Brace, [1961].
  • Behn, Harry. Siesta, Phoenix: The Golden Bough Press, 1931). Poems.
  • Behn, Harry. Sombra. Copenhagen: Christtreu, 1961. Poems.
  • Behn, Harry. Timmy’s Search.  Greenwich, Conn.: Seabury Press, [1958].
  • Behn, Harry. Trees: A Poem. New York : H. Holt, ©1992. Poem for children.
  • Behn, Harry. The Two Uncles of Pablo. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1959. Juvenile fiction.
  • Behn, Harry. What a Beautiful Noise. New York: World Publishing Co., 1970.
  • Behn, Harry. Windy Morning. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1953. Children’s poetry.
  • Behn, Harry. The Wizard in the Well: Poems and Pictures. New York: Harcourt, Brace, ©1956. Children’s poetry.

Additional sources

  • Beilenson, Peter, trans. Cherry Blossoms: Translations of Poems by Basho, Buson, Issa, Shiki and Others. Mount Vernon, N.Y: Peter Pauper Press, 1960. Series: Japanese Haiku 3.
  • Beilenson, Peter, trans. The Four Seasons: Japanese Haiku Written by Basho, Buson, Issa, Shiki, and Many Others. Mount Vernon, N.Y.: Peter Pauper Press, 1958. Series: Japanese Haiku 2.
  • Beilenson, Peter, trans. Japanese Haiku: Two Hundred Twenty Examples of Seventeen-Syllable Poems by Basho, Buson, Issa, Shiki, Sokan, Kikaku and Others. Mount Vernon, N.Y.: Peter Pauper Press, 1955/56. Series: Japanese Haiku 1. Text available online: http://www.sacred-texts.com/shi/jh/jh02.htm.
  • Bennett, Brad. “Children’s Haiku Books: An Annotated Bibliography.” Modern Haiku 46:3 (Autumn 2015), 34–52. 
  • Bownas, Geoffrey, and Anthony Thwaite, eds. and trans. The Penguin Book of Japanese Verse. Hammondsworth, Middlesex / Baltimore, Md.: Penguin Books, 1964, 1972, 1983.
  • Blyth, R. H. Haiku. Volume II: Spring. Tokyo: Hokuseido Press, 1950.
  • Dauphinais, Helaine V. “A Study of Harry Behn’s Poetry for Children.” Master’s thesis, Southern Connecticut State College, May 1973. Typescript in the Behn Papers, University of Minnesota.
  • ”Harry Behn.“ Contemporary Authors Online. Farmington Hills, Mich.: Gale Research, 2003.
  • Harry Behn Papers, 1914–1968. Orbis Cascade Alliance Archives West website: http://archiveswest.orbiscascade.org/ark:/80444/xv12322
  • Henry Behn Papers, 1932–1973. Finding Aid. Children’s Literature Research Collection, University of Minnesota Libraries, Minneapolis. Information available online at http://special.lib.umn.edu/findaid/html/clrc/clrc0108.html.
  • ”Harry Behn Dead; An Early Scenarist.” New York Times, September 10, 1973, 38. Obituary.
  • Henderson, Harold G. Haiku in English. New York: Japan Society, Inc., 1965.
  • Henderson, Harold G. An Introduction to Haiku: An Anthology of Poems and Poets From Bashō to Shiki. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday Anchor Books, 1958.
  • Marie Cecile, Sister, S.S.J. “Harry Behn: Wizard of Song and Lore.” The Catholic Educator (October 1966), 46–49.
  • Shōson [Kenneth Yasuda]. A Pepper-Pod: Translations of Classic and Modern Japanese Poems in Haiku Form, Together with Some Original Haiku Written in English. Foreword by John Gould Fletcher. New York: Alfred A. Knopf Borzoi Books, 1947.
  • Trumbull, Charles. “Harry Behn: Research Note.” Modern Haiku 37:3 (Autumn 2006), 75–80. Available online in The Haiku Foundation Digital Archive: http://www.thehaikufoundation.org/omeka/items/show/1153.

NOTES

  1. For a consideration of Behn’s early work, see Sister Marie Cecile, S.S.J. “Harry Behn: Wizard of Song and Lore.” The Catholic Educator (October 1966), 46–49. []
  2. “Biographical/Historical Notes.” Henry Behn Papers, 1932–1973. []
  3. Helaine V. Dauphinais. “A Study of Harry Behn’s Poetry for Children.” Typescript. Harry Behn Papers, 1932–1973. []
  4. Clipping in Behn Scrapbook 3. Harry Behn Papers, 1932–1973. []
  5. Margaret K. McElderry to Harry Behn, November 27, 1967. MF 75, folder 7 (Correspondence with Publishers). Harry Behn Papers, 1932–1973. []
  6. Bennett, “Children’s Haiku Books: An Annotated Bibliography,” Modern Haiku 46:3 (Autumn 2015), 39. []
  7. Behn to McElderry, August 17, 1970. Henry Behn Papers, 1932–1973. []
Updated on October 12, 2020