Edith Shiffert

Photo by Micah Gampel

Edith Shiffert has lived in Kyoto since 1963 and published some twenty books of poetry.  She is currently 99 years old and resident in a rest home.

Below is Dennis Maloney’s introduction in John Einarsen’s beautifully illustrated tribute to Edith, Kyoto: The Forest Within the Gate.

I first met Edith Shiffert in Kyoto in the spring of 1973 when I was a student and beginning poet. At that time, there was a group of Japanese poets who wrote in English and published the journal Poetry Nippon. When I read in the journal that they met at Edith’s house, I telephoned her and asked if I could join them for their next meeting. We spoke afterwards and subsequently met many times that spring. Edith had lived in Kyoto for a decade by then, earning her living as a teacher, first at Doshisha College and later at Kyoto Seika University. I was inspired during my stay in Kyoto to establish the literary publishing house White Pine Press, now entering its fortieth year, to publish poetry and literature in translation. Edith was one of the first poets we published, and we are still publishing her work today.

While she would probably never refer to herself as a feminist, she was certainly a woman who chose her own path at a time when very few dared to do so. Born Edith Marcombe in Toronto, Canada, in 1916, she spent most of her youth in upstate New York before moving to Redondo Beach, California, in the mid 1930s. In 1938, at the age of twenty-two, she traveled alone to Hawaii, first to Honolulu and then to the Big Island. There she met and married her first husband, Steven Shiffert, with whom she homesteaded on the Big Island during the war years. After the war, she and her husband moved first to Washington, where they constructed a log cabin near North Bend, and then moved on Alaska for several years. After she and her husband separated, Edith, at age forty, enrolled in the University of Washington to study poetry with Theodore Roethke. She remained there from 1956 to 1962. Her first two books of poetry, In Open Woods and For a Return to Kona, were published in 1961 and 1963. She has subsequently published a number of volumes of her own poetry, along with several volumes of translations. In 1981, she married Minoru Sawano, a retired teacher, and they shared an active life together, traveling in Japan and abroad until his passing in 2004.

The poems below are taken from Kyoto Journal 70 (with thanks to John Einarsen)

At Honen-in
the day-end bell is struck
and the low rays of the sun
flow blindingly between the autumn’s scarlet leaves
while the hiyo birds screech with joy and excitement
as the bell sounds again, again.

Honen-in afire
with November leaves, its bell
at sunset loud, loud! Clear, clear!
deep, deep!


Walking very straight
in his best suit
the old man
enters the park across the road
but in a moment
changes his mind and goes down
the business street instead
hesitating a little
but continuing on.
Later he comes back
but before he reaches his own door
turns and goes off again
while relatives, neighbors,
and men whose profession it is
prepare the house
for his wife’s funeral.
A few wet snowflakes are falling
and he doesn’t have his overcoat on.


Praying for the Flowers
To ease the spirit of the flowers
young children with golden ornaments on their heads,
in pink and green gauzes over red and violet,
with tulips, carnations and irises in their arms,
circle in the great hall
far under the ceiling’s painted dragon,
past the high Buddhist altar
where the lacquer trays hold rice cakes and oranges.
They follow after the abbot’s russet brocades
and between priests in light and dark purples
circling as they chant a sutra for the spirit of the flowers
for the brevity of their springtime,
fallen petals like the silk
banners hung from the high log beams of the open walls
over the children so soon gone
and their glad parents watching,
and the hums of the chanters and the sound of gongs
lost just a short distance
beyond the enclosing square of the polished veranda,
to be gone like the fragrant incense smoke
between the open branches of pine trees.



Name: Les Sackett
Email: Lcsckt@embarqmail.com
Comment: Thanks so much for the latest news about Edith Shiffert. I had the pleasure of knowing her while I was teaching part time at Seika Daigaku and until I left Japan in 1993.
I feel sad that she is not with us in some ways. But, that profile photo of her is beautiful.
Les Sackett (Taught at Kyoto Sangyo Daigaku 1973 – 1993.  Now living in Florida, USA)