Saturday, December 14, 2013

Cool Announcement: Robert Hass Interview and The Essential Haiku

RR: How and to what extent has haiku influenced your poetic thought and poetry?
RH: I don't think anybody can ever answer this question— either the how or the how much— very accurately. One would have to have a great deal of detachment about one's own work. How? The power of the image, the power of simplicity, the power of discrimination, the implicit idea that anything can contain everything, something about negotiating nothingness in the sense of not ultimately having a place to stand (or sit) in our observation of the world. How much? I don't know. A lot. At least it seems to me that my debt is great to the poets I've most studied, Basho, Buson, Issa.
RR: Haiku are generally taken to be a poetics of nature, and often take aspects of the natural world as a focus or topic; could you discuss the question of haiku and nature, poetry and nature, in light of recent revelations of global warming and as Bill McKibben put it, "the end of nature?"
RH: One of the arguments for the cultivation of haiku, I suppose, is that attention to nature has become a moral imperative. McKibben is good on this subject and the great text is still the essay, "The Land Ethic" in Aldo Leopold's Sand Country Almanac. That book, especially the essays "Thinking Like a Mountain" and "Good Oak" and "Song of the Gavilan" are also useful texts for thinking about how to naturalize an imagination of nature in North American poetry. In so much of poetry and thinking about poetry right now, there is a good deal of appropriate skepticism about the assumptions behind realism as a literary mode and therefore about the whole question of what we do when we think to represent nature. It might be useful to let this tradition— and the range of anti-realist practices from surrealism to language poetics— enter the practice of haiku, if only to take away the sort of easy wow! poem that tends to be the first stage of our attempts to appropriate the form. Allen Ginsberg's notion that the blues lyric is the American version of haiku might also be helpful in this connection. See his effort at what he called "American sentences."
-- "The Essential Hass: A Short Interview with Robert Hass," Roadrunner, 7:4, November 2007
. . . the spirit of haiku required that the language be kept plain. "’The function of Haik[u],’" Basho once said, "’is to rectify common speech.’" It also demanded accurate and original images, drawn mostly from common life . . .

The insistence on time and place was crucial for writers of haiku. The seasonal reference was called a kigo and a haiku was thought to be incomplete without it . . . The practice was sufficiently codified and there was even a rule that the seasonal reference should always appear either in the first or third unit of the three phrase poem . . .

If the first level of a haiku is its location in nature, itse second is almost always some implicit Buddhist reflection on nature . . . At the core of Buddhist metaphysics are three ideas about natural things: that they are transient; that they are contingent; and that they suffer . . .

They [Basho’s, Busson’s, and Issa’s Haiku] have a quality of actuality, of the moment seized on and rendered purely, and because of this they seem to elude being either traditional images of nature or ideas about it. The formal reason for this mysteriousness is that they don’t usually generalize their images . . . what was left was the irreducible mysteriousness of the images themselves. The French writer Roland Barthes speaks of this . . . as the haiku’s "breach of meaning" and is able to make a post-modern case for them as deconstructions and subverters of cultural certainties. This case can be made, but the silence of haiku, its wordlessness, also has its roots in Buddhist culture, especially in Zen . . .

Zen provided people training in how to stand aside and leave the meaning-making activity of the ego to its own devices. Not resisting it, but seeing it as another phenomenal thing . . .
Perhaps the best way [to read Haiku] . . . after one has familiarized oneself with the symbolism of the seasons and the Japanese habit of mind, is to read them as plainly and literally as possible.

-- Robert Hass, "Introduction," The Essential Haiku: Versions of Basho, Buson, and Issa, xii-xvi.

Selected haiku translated by Robert Hass
Even in Kyoto --
hearing the cuckoo's cry --
I long for Kyoto.


Escaped the ropes,
escaped the nets --
moon on the water.


I go
you stay;
two autumns.


Climb Mount Fuji,
O snail,
but slowly, slowly.


Don't kill that fly!
 Look--it's wringing its hands,
 wringing its feet.



  1. In his long essay, "Images" (included in his book, titled 20th Century Pleasures), Robert Hass talks about why haiku as a genre is powerful, and also distinct from other poetic genres. Below is excerpted from the essay:

    "The summer had been crowded with people, visitors, friends, children, their friends; even backpacking, I had gone with groups. The week had been a large gathering of grandparents, parents, brothers and sisters, in-laws, children. The communal rhythms of family life have their deep satisfactions— even the logistics of them. The true haiku of my days just then would have gone something like this: "Bill and Leif want to climb Mount Tallac and Karen and I are taking the Volkswagen to go fishing, so can you and Mom walk to the beach now and pick up Luke at Peter's later in Gradma's car?" A means to a means to a means, Ranall Jarrell called it. It was beginning to be too much of a good thing, and trading away solitude for those other pleasures for so long had begun to eat me up. I suppose I was also feeling, paradoxically, the submerged melancholy of the end of summer. If I had written about what I had seen, if we had, as the Japanese did, a set of conventions that could carry all that weight, I think I would probably have gotten it wrong by identifying too closely with the animal:

    black ants, and the little dead marmot's
    half-closed eye.

    This image, like others, seemed partial to me walking down the mountain, glimpses of life, but not the heart of it. At Susy Lake, however, I felt as if I had been granted a death vision: white trees, white grass, white leaves; the snow patches and flowering currant suddenly dark beside them; and everything there, rock, tree, cloud, sky, shuddering and blazing. It was a sense, past speaking, past these words, that everything, all of the earth and time itself, was alive and burning."

  2. Please note that the "two autumns" poem is actually by Shiki, not Buson (an error that Prof. Hass knows about). The poem is correctly attributed to Shiki in authoritative books. Blyth misattributed the poem in volume two of his four-book set, "Haiku," but corrected himself in the later two-book set, "A History of Haiku," adding the anecdote that Shiki wrote the poem for Soseki, which is corroborated in Shiki translations by Burton Watson and from the Shiki Museum in Matsuyama. The problem is that many other translators, including Harold Henderson and Robert Hass have perpetuated Blyth's original error. The poem, though, is definitely by Shiki.

    1. Hi! Michael:

      The haiku above is quoted from Ross' "The Essential Haiku: Versions of Basho, Buson, and Issa"

      But, you're right. This haiku was written by Shiki. Below is excerpted from Burton Watson's "Masaoka Shiki: Selected Poems By Shiki Masaoka," p.44:

      Taking Leave of Soseki*

      For me, who go
      for you who stay behind --
      two autumns

      written in 1895 autumn

      *The novelist Natsume Soseki (1867-1916), who at this time as a middle school teacher in Matsuyama. Shiki was leaving Matsuyama for Tokyo.

      Thanks for sharing your insightful comment.