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Edith Shiffert, a Poet Inspired by Nature and Her Life in Japan, Dies at 101


Edith Shiffert in 2005 in Kyoto, Japan. Her poetry was influenced by her many years living there.

Micah Gampel

Edith Shiffert, an American poet whose work was profoundly influenced by the half-century she spent in Japan, died on March 1 in Kyoto, where she had long made her home. She was 101.

Her death, announced on the website Writers in Kyoto, was not publicized outside Japan. Ms. Shiffert, who had dementia, had been in a nursing home for about a decade, her American publisher and literary executor, Dennis Maloney, said on Friday.

The author of nearly two dozen volumes of poetry, Ms. Shiffert was published in The New Yorker and — at midcentury, when newspapers routinely printed poems — in The New York Times and elsewhere. She was also known as a writer on, and translator of, Japanese poetry.

Ms. Shiffert was a quiet sensualist, her verse characterized by spare simplicity and a deep, abiding affinity with the natural world. Her poems were inclined to be short (she was keenly influenced by haiku), and were often organized around unobtrusive — and therefore highly effective — rhyme or half-rhyme, the prosodic device in which two words are united by a shared final sound.

In “The Summer Tree,” published in The Christian Science Monitor in 1968, for instance, the first four stanzas employ half- and whole rhymes in alternation. The rhymed lines also shift position from one stanza to the next, creating a feeling of rippling movement that suggests leaves ruffled by the wind:

Since winter ended for this tree, new leaves
filled all the branches, grew, could not restrain
themselves from coming. They will wilt and drop,
be nothing, but for summer they show green.

Light shines all around them. They do not
feel its warmth or shape. They wear the glow
belonging to the season while they grow.
They wear the light, and that is what they are.

The rustle and the texture of the leaves,
the way they look, their smell and taste, do not
concern them on their stems and twigs. Each moves
as air moves, and when winter comes it falls.

Grow is not a word to lightly say.
The tree is there. It uses what it is.
Underground the roots expand. In air
branches rise and spread. The tree is there.

The daughter of John Benjamin Marcombe and the former Annie Marie Drew, Edith Marion Marcombe was born in Toronto on Jan. 9, 1916. Her family moved to the United States when she was a young child, and she lived variously in Rochester, Detroit and Redondo Beach, Calif.

Ms. Shiffert began writing poetry in her teens. An adventurous young woman, she lit out for Hawaii in 1938, remaining until 1945. Her time there inspired a poetry collection, “For a Return to Kona,” published in 1964.

She married Steven R. Shiffert, her first husband, in 1940, and over time lived with him in Hawaii, Alaska, California and in a log cabin they built in the Washington State wilderness.

In the late 1950s and early ’60s, she studied at the University of Washington, where her teachers included the poet Theodore Roethke.

Ms. Shiffert moved to Kyoto in 1963 and in the years that followed taught English at colleges and universities there. The sights and sounds of her adopted home would infuse her work. “New Year’s Eve, Kyoto,” published in The Christian Science Monitor on Dec. 31, 1966, begins:

How slowly
in the moonlit cold of midnight,
one hundred and eight times,
each temple strikes its bell.

Listening, between sounds
is time to remember, and regret,
common sins and fugitive delights.

With Yuki Sawa, Ms. Shiffert compiled and translated the volumes “Anthology of Modern Japanese Poetry” (1972) and “Haiku Master Buson” (1978), a study of the 18th-century Japanese poet that is considered the first important explication of his work in English.

Ms. Shiffert’s marriage to Mr. Shiffert ended in divorce in 1970; she was married to Minoru Sawano from 1981 until his death in 2004. Her survivors include a sister, Alice Sindzinski.

Her other volumes of poetry include “The Kyoto Years” (1971), “Forest House With Cat” (1991) and “The Light Comes Slowly” (1997).

Because much of Ms. Shiffert’s work was rooted in the natural world, it inevitably explored time and its inescapable consequences. In “The Bouquet, Finished,” published in The Times in 1968, she wrote:

We cannot call it important,
a scattering of petals onto a table
after a week in my room.

Yet it seems a beginning to all sadnesses,
frailty, and going away.

I had become fond of these orange poppies
and their disintegration
forces me to face inevitable endings and renunciations
of all seasons,
of all the sunlit fields I ever saw,
of all brightnesses, persons, myself.

One by one, bits of crepe
fall onto the table,
each still vivid orange.
Stems remain
with corollas of stamens
around pods of undeveloped seeds,
but the flowers, so enjoyed, are finished,
and it all must be swept up and thrown away.

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