McClintock Interview with Robert Wilson
[Q=Robert Wilson, A=Michael McClintock]
Q. What first
attracted you to haiku and why?
You want the truth? I needed a new angle on literature, the study of which was
driving me to desperate things, and I needed a new, better approach to writing
poetry, my attempts at the time being hopeless, confused, and laughable. Haiku
came to me like a mouse in the night, nibbling my cheese. I began to notice. It
got to the cheese every time, and I had none left to eat for myself. So I brought
haiku permanently into my home and invited it to teach me its secrets. That was
many years ago. I think of that time and those first lessons with great fondness.
Kidding aside, my interest
in haiku has gone through many phases or stages, and has taken me in many directions.
Initially, and to this day, I am most interested in haiku’s use of language,
how from such simple language such evocative material can be so directly, intimately,
completely conveyed. So my interest was, and remains, linguistic, and all that
that entails, including the aesthetic formation of haiku, its techniques and methods.
I’ve studied and enjoyed haiku in a kind of parallel alignment with most
of the subjects into which I’ve decided to settle myself and spend a great
deal of time and energy--literature, art, philosophy, comparative religion. Haiku
does have a perspective on these areas; it has something to offer on all of them.
For all the talk about haiku’s setting aside of rational and intellectual
impulses for a form of intuitive understanding--which it certainly also offers
and is--I have found haiku to be an inexhaustible, intellectual romp.
Q. You have been both editor
and competition judge. What to you constitutes a good haiku?
A. Well, I can only speak
of its effects. A good haiku will be one that rings the bell, a poem that shows
me something familiar in a new, meaningful way, in the simplest, most direct,
best language. It will also be one that I want to read and re-read, again and
again, over time, and that will continue to show me new things. What constitutes
a good haiku, what enables it to do such things, is something I am still discovering.
That is the short answer, and the only one you have the time for, or I the wits
Q. The Japanese, of course,
gave birth to haiku. It has since gained converts and acceptance throughout the
world. What is it about haiku that has caused the world to take notice?
A. Good poems by good haiku
poets, in increasing numbers, over a sustained number of years: perhaps, that
is one reason. It has to do with the quality of the haiku achievement, its validity
and strength as an art or literary form, and its staying power as a small but
strong cultural force that is free of and unencumbered by the rise and fall of
passing fads and fashions and most of the other by-products of a culture that
is chasing its tail and driving itself crazy. That would be one way to put it,
But, more importantly, I
think that haiku appear to offer to people and the world generally what generally
people and the world are discovering they urgently need and do not have: a combination
of things, involving personal connection to the world and other people around
them, a meaning to ordinary, daily life, and a center or point of view that affords
them something more nourishing to the soul or spirit than the impersonal, commercialized
crap that constitutes corporate-made and corporate–marketed popular, mass-culture.
That would be another way to put it, and I think it may have some merit and lead
to any number of additional, related speculations. I suppose we might say that
if the world didn’t suck, we’d all fall off--but I do think that haiku
offer another view of the matter, and they convey that view in a way that is immediate,
emphatic, and frequently unforgettable. People talk. Word gets around. Another
convert appears, in the home, or on the street, or in the workplace. I am happy
to witness it.
Q. My next question almost
sounds contradictory. You once said, "Haiku is a permanent feature of English-language
poetry, but has yet to enjoy unqualified acceptance." Would you please elucidate?
A. I may have touched on
some of the reasons I have for thinking haiku has staying power in our culture
in the remarks at the start, about how the content of haiku and its philosophical
and aesthetic perspectives and values can easily transfer to so many huge subject
areas involving human experience and knowledge.
Apart from that, and viewed
as a movement in poetry, I can’t think of another that has had a similar
long history--that has grown over the years as it has, rather than diminishing
and finally petering-out as have most others over the past one hundred years.
It takes a long time for a poet or a poetry to embed and take root in a culture,
or to achieve the kind of absorption by a culture that really matters, and that
can make a difference in that culture, that can add something substantial to it.
Most individual poets come
and go before that process has taken place, and certainly most poetry movements.
But not haiku. Every year, there are important little indicators, here and there,
in which English translations of Japanese haiku, or original English-language
haiku written over the past fifty years, is reprinted, read again, or reintroduced
to a new generation and a broader audience of readers. That is real strength.
Just a few examples are Dover’s popular and ever-ready The Classic Tradition
of Haiku Anthology, edited by Faubion Bowers (1996); W. W. Norton’s
edition of van den Heuvel’s The Haiku Anthology (1998); The
Everyman’s Library series edition of Haiku, selected and edited by
Peter Washington (Alfred A. Knopf, 2003), which contains contemporary English-language
haiku poets in its presentation of translations, together with excerpts of haiku-like
writing in the work of poets from many periods of literature.These
are not trivial things, insofar as poetry is concerned. Just the other day, I
received in the mail an anthology of English-language haiku compiled and translated
by Hiroaki Sato, titled Erotic Haiku (Yohan, 2004) published in Japan.
Some poems in the book were written nearly forty years ago.
may always be fugitive; I do frankly wonder if it is not just an illusion, after
all. Who or what is ever accorded “unqualified success”? Nothing in
poetry. And how could such a thing ever be measured or, should it come, be recognized
when it arrived? In his famous essay on poetry, Emerson even found fault with
Homer and Shakespeare. So perhaps we should not be too concerned with it, but
pay attention to and enjoy our work. Haiku
has, in fact, enjoyed a great deal of exposure relative to other poetry and poetic
tribes, and to the tiny portion of the publishing world that is allotted to poetry.
The haiku community is strong and keeps its own history: That is also a very good
thing, and rather rare. Brooks Books, for instance, is planning to publish (or
perhaps it already has done so) a new edition of the haiku of O Mabson Southard
(aka O. Southard). It promises to be bigger and more complete than any collection
Southard published during his lifetime. That kind of memory, care, and value for
a poet’s work reflects the ability of English-language haiku to endure,
to throw something up onto the wall of time and make it stick. In poetry, in any
age, there are few better indicators of success.
Q. The importance of using
a kigo word in haiku has been stressed by many well known haiku poets. How important
is this to you? Are there times when it is okay to not use a kigo word? And by
not using one, does the haiku then become a senryu?
A. Discussions of kigo
make me restless and usually leave me unhappy.
My view is this: The presence
of what we call kigo does not necessarily make a poem a haiku; its absence doesn’t
make a haiku a senryu. A haiku without a kigo word or phrase is just that: a haiku
without a kigo. We should not assume, categorically, that the haiku is for that
reason diminished, or is somehow a three-legged dog.
By all means, use a kigo
word or phrase when it is needed. Kigo can be very effective in introducing associations
of season, time of year, specific events or holidays, and so on, that are appropriate
to what the poet wants to convey or evoke in the poem. But formal kigo can also
introduce associations that are diffuse, irrelevant, imprecise, or merely gratuitous--meaning
without cause or justification: uncalled-for.
Use of a kigo to establish
a poem’s context or setting, or to introduce meaningful and effective associations
to enhance meaning and depth--that is all fine, but words and phrases not “officially”
identified or codified as kigo may also accomplish the same thing, and be more
appropriate. What is most important to understand is the fundamental concept at
the core of kigo, which is the use of language that can introduce into the poem
effective, rich, and relevant associations. Kigo is a kind of ready-made tool for
accomplishing that, but it is not a required tool in my book. Not at all.
Sometimes I think that the
study, use, and refinement of specific kigo can be a big and unproductive distraction--the
deeper you get into it, the more arbitrary and intricate become its restrictions,
prohibitions, and rules governing usage, and the more distorted some of the results.
This is especially true of some kigo having associational values that are geo-
or culture-specific and that make no sense outside that geographic location, culture,
I don’t think that
any aspect of writing a haiku should be placed on “automatic,” or
given any sense whatsoever of being part of a paint-by-numbers kind of process,
or overly preoccupied with stock responses. The poem and its elements should reflect
the subject matter or content of the poem. Haiku should be shaped to suit the
poet’s intent or meaning, as part of their crafting. Sometimes that will
include the use of kigo; at other times, it won’t.
Q. How does one better
the ability to write quality haiku? Any advice?
A. Acquire a respect for
and genuine interest in the medium, language. Practice.
You can have a life of haiku
moments. You can attain great acuity and abilities of perception. You can achieve
the heights of spiritual development. You can brush your teeth in Nirvana or become
an empty mirror, but without language and knowledge of how to use it, no haiku
will come of any of that.
Q. This question compliments
my previous question. You write beautiful, well crafted haiku. Yet you never rest
on your laurels. What do you do personally to improve your craft?
A. I try to write the poem
as if it were either the first or the last ever to be written on the subject,
and that it is my responsibility to make it stick and be memorable. If it is to
be the last poem, I must make it worthy to stand alongside the ten thousand others;
if it is to be the first poem, I must do everything I can to make it deserving
of a position at the top of the page. Of course, in each case, there is a real
danger of trying too hard. That just heightens the stakes, and has a wonderful
way of clarifying the mind. Failing of either goal, first or last--which, in fact,
is most of the time--I try to understand why the poem failed. I don’t then
throw it away, but I do move on.
I think this basic method
may have improved my craft over time; I can’t say that I really know. For
sure, it has afforded me a keen sense of failure and struggle. That in turn generates
renewed effort. It seems to me that once you have succeeded at something, it’s
a bit of a grind to keep doing it, over and over again. Where is the return in
that? Laurels are useless. Who wants to wear strands of salad around their head?
Q. You also write tanka
poetry. What is and isn't a tanka?
A. Last year I wrote a
fifty-page essay about just that--what is and isn’t a tanka--after thinking
a lot about it over some thirty years. The essay became the introduction to The
Tanka Anthology (Red Moon Press, 2003). Basically, my approach is this: In
English, tanka, like haiku, is a distinct and identifiable form of short poem.
Both have historic connections to the haiku and tanka of Japan, but both are also
different, and justifiably so. They partake of the Japanese tradition, holding
in common a set of distinguishing characteristics, but are at the same time, right
now, developing their own distinct attributes, qualities, and features: It is
a process of literary evolution, involving adaptation to another culture.
The core description I offer
of English-language tanka is this:
“While poets continue
to experiment, the contemporary tanka in English may be described as typically
an untitled free-verse short poem having anywhere from about twelve to thirty-one
syllables arranged in words and phrases over five lines, crafted to stand alone
as a unitary, aesthetic whole--a complete poem. . . . During the last thirty years,
it has emerged as a robust short form that is identifiable as a distinct verse
type while being extremely variable in its details.”
The essay argues that tanka
in English is still defining itself, through the poems, and from there develops
what I hope is a fairly satisfactory discussion that illustrates the salient ingredients,
parts, attributes and qualities, using specific poems as examples.
For some, that will be all
the “definition” of tanka they need; it will suffice. They understand
that the poets themselves define the form and genre, through the poems, how they
write them and what they put into them--not the critic, not the essayist, not
the cultural or arts historian, not the ideologist or theorist. And each new tanka
that is added, by a process of general consent and persuasion, also contributes
its special use of form, weight and measure to the definition. I prefer that similar
relationships and processes exist within haiku literature.
Q. You step away from definitions,
A. Here I do, yes. As I
do most of the time: It is just a preference of my own, though it is one I also
advocate. I prefer to place the poet, or any artist, in the first or leading position,
by which I mean in the primary role of creating the art. Historically, we know,
that has not always been the case, or the prevailing climate. Those outside the
direct production of the art itself will often dictate the content and form the
art is to take, usually in service of some political or economic purpose. Their
power base or social position permits them to assume this first or leading position.
The result of this has usually been the fossilization or death of the art; it
becomes codified within the functions of a bureaucracy. The process usually starts
with definitions that are closed, in place of descriptions that are left open
and can accommodate change, innovation, and growth. So, I am merely biased in
the other direction.
At any given time, in any
art--no less in tanka, haiku, or poetry generally--an element of each approach
is usually evident. The tension between the two forces can actually have benefits.
Overall, though, history seems to show that when the artist is not in the lead
position, when conformity to a definition and a body of rules, permissions, and
prohibitions dominates, the art dies and the artist finds something else to do.
The dictates of social realism within the Soviet state comprise a recent example
of culture-wide, artistic disaster.
At best, it seems to me,
definitions about poetry or any art are a kind of useful conceit, or necessary
but temporary fiction, which we use to establish a base for comparison and contrast
between things, even as those same things are constantly changing and evolving
into new, other things. Definitions are a teaching tool; they aren’t the
thing itself. Usually, my advice to poets is to use them, absorb whatever general
sense or application they may have, then discard them and return to work. Most
readers might benefit from doing the same thing.
Q. Any advice for those
new to the writing of tanka?
A. What does anyone do
when they are new to something, interested in it, and want to “do”
it? You begin to study and read about it, learn all you can about it, think about
it, bring it into your life, make a seat for it in our heart and mind. Approach
it as a lover--and with the same mix of joy and caution. Take what is there to
take, test and question, give all you can in return, struggle with self-doubt.
Let it drive you crazy. Yes, fall in love.
Q. What one haiku poet
has had the most influence on you as a poet, and why?
A. Would it surprise you
if I said R. H. Blyth? I think of him as the dominant haiku poet in English, and
maybe the only one who will be well remembered a few centuries from now. Blyth
was not just a scholar who translated Japanese haiku, but was the first and the
best in putting haiku into the English language. That he did so as a process of
translation is almost incidental to his achievement. He was also a fine, practical
philosopher, and a wonderful critic, having profound immediacy. He not only rendered
the work of the great and minor haiku poets of Japan into English, but showed
how English could be made to carry the freight. Additionally, through his commentaries
and analyses, Blyth gave to the poetry some of its finest illumination, making
a home for haiku possible in our culture.
Like Nietsche once said
of music, I can say of haiku and tanka: without either, life would be a mistake.
March 25, 2004 to Robert Wilson,
Additional interviews with
Michael McClintock are available at these links:
1. From Stylist Poetry
Haiku and the Long View.
2. From World Haiku
with a Poet.
Michael's biography is found