Escaping Commonplace

2014 Number 3 - The Singing of the Scythe

The Essential Haiku: Versions of Basho, Buson and Issa, edited and translated by Robert Hass, Bloodaxe, 2013 

In this Bloodaxe edition of a book already available in America for twenty years, the three great masters Basho, Buson and Issa are presented not only in haiku but in prose about their lives and about writing. The essence of haiku itself emerges mostly from consideration of these essential haiku poets, with their different styles over two centuries, mid-seventeenth to early-nineteenth.

One century ago, Imagism brought a Chinese and Japanese outlook into English-language poetry, and the haiku has becomean English poetic form, influencing English poetry as much asthe imported sonnet in the sixteenth century. But Anglophone poets and readers remain nervous about whether we understand it properly. Do we work with it freely in an English idiom or try to write and read it in a more Japanese way? From my non-Japanese-speaking point of view, this book has taken me further than I expected in beginning to understand those questions. The translations are by a number of poets and scholars besides Robert Hass; the haiku do not attempt to follow Japanese syllabic rules in English, but concentrate on recreating the effect on the reader.

English before Imagism was able to deliver epiphany, witticism, and sudden insight, but the bareness of the Japanese way was so much what modernism required. English epigrams tend to be humorous, like the limerick or clerihew, and the humour we associate with Zen is very much a part of haiku too (the root haikai meaning ‘sportive or playful’). The Western mind will want paradox, irony, and motivation, and these things are there:

                    Even in Kyoto – 
          hearing the cuckoo’s cry –
                    I long for Kyoto. (Basho)

The unexplainable haiku moment is Williams’s red wheelbarrow, rain and white chickens, but without ‘So much depends on...’ because what depends on those things is itself the characteristic Japanese appreciation of them, at best the enlightened Zen moment of satori. Sharing this is perhaps the hardest thing to translate or
for the reader to grasp, and such minimal material often balances between simplicity and banality – the aim being Buson’s ‘Use the commonplace to escape the commonplace’. Hass sums up the Zen element as ‘how to stand aside and leave the meaning-making activity of the ego to its own devices.’

The moment may be a musing query:

                    Tea flowers –
          are they white?
                    yellow? (Buson) 

A moment of consciousness:

          I’m here –
                    the snow falling. (Issa)

A down-to-earth image (the next poem in the book):

                    Pissing in the snow 
           outside my door –
                    it makes a very straight hole.

Further on the theme of snow, the poet’s impatient response to a contest from a wealthy patron:

                     Writing shit about new snow
            for the rich
                     is not art.

Hass admits to having ‘tuned it up a little’ from the original ‘nonsense’, strengthening how ‘new snow’ signifies ‘freshness and purity’, implicit in the Japanese seasonal element.

The sudden sharp focus of haiku emphasises how any translation is filtered through one individual’s interpretation. Hass says: ‘Over twenty years ago, reading R.H. Blyth, I began to make my own versions of his translations, from an impulse to simplify or clarify them as a way of saying to myself what I saw in the poems...’ before acquiring grammars and dictionaries, ‘learning a little – very little – Japanese as I went’. I have felt the same simplifying impulse: in the poem below ‘seem’ creates vagueness and I want to sharpen it to ‘look like flames’.

                      Fallen petals of red plum –
             they seem to be burning
                      on the clods of horse shit (Buson)

The book’s introduction gives a nod to the development of the form, but technical explanation comes only at the end in ‘A Note on Haikai, Hokku, and Haiku’, explaining how the socially-created chain-poem renga took the five-line tanka and linked the first three lines (later becoming the haiku) with a couplet by the next poet, which introduced a new three lines by another poet, etcetera. The social nature of sharing renga therefore lies behind the culture of the individual haiku, and its own sense of occasion. Hass makes the point that Pound’s Cantos or Stevens’s ‘Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird’ in their modernist sequencing, like the montage of surrealist film, aspire to the discontinuous renga spirit as assaults on the European master narrative of ‘a world that made sense’, but ‘in the Buddhist tradition the view of the world implied by renga made perfect sense and was deeply shared.’ Basho consciously undertook his part in reinventing haiku:

these country poets had gone astray trying to take both ways at once, new style and old style, no one to guide them. At their request, sat and composed with them, leaving a collection of no great merit. But further along than they were.

Present-day Western poets may also feel the need of guidance among technical considerations. Do syllables matter in English? Do season words depend on Japanese seasonal experience? Some issues seem designed for obsessives, with concerns of authenticity distracting from accommodating the haiku spirit in English. Hass’s approach may not satisfy enthusiasts: his versions are not attempts to make English act like Japanese. There is usually the sense of a balance between strangeness – what is not Anglophone here – and hospitality – sharing the joke, the insight.

Hass has gone deeply into the spirit and workings of haiku but could be clearer in his exposition of these in a more logical arrangement. There is little about the Japanese sound of the poem, or the look of it in calligraphy and illustration (the few half-tones look a little grimy). In my further reading I found the book by Stephen Addiss, The Art of Haiku (Boston, Shambhala, 2012) better organised and more comprehensive, with parallel text of all the haiku and good colour plates of scrolls: what it does not have is Robert Hass as gentle guide and explorer, taking us along the path of haiku and its inspiring discipline that has helped to make him the poet he is.

Peter Daniels

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