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.
Climb Mount Fuji,
but slowly, slowly.
Don't kill that fly!
Look--it's wringing its hands,
wringing its feet.