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Spring 2005, vol 3 no 1

Interview ~ David Barnhill
                      by Robert D. Wilson

RW: Are you suggesting in your book that it is imperative to see through Basho's eyes, to understand his mindset, in order to fully comprehend his haiku?

DB: Well, first, I don’t believe in absolutes. No one fully comprehends any significant poem. But we certainly enter into his haiku more deeply the more we understand his mindset. We will never really see through Basho’s eyes, but our own vision can be greatly expanded and enriched if we can open more to Basho’s understanding of nature, culture, and consciousness, and how they are all interrelated.

RW: You've said in the forward to your book, Basho's Haiku, that "the remarkable power of Basho's poetry and prose continues today, expanding into cultures he could not have dreamed of . . . And recently, the scholarly study of Basho in the West had reached a new level of insight. My hope is that this translation will help to extend his impact on Western culture." Could you elucidate?

DB: Basho’s impact on the West goes at least as far back as Ezra Pound and the imagist movement. He was then associated with Zen as it became popular in the West, although Basho was not a strictly Zen poet that some have made him out to be–his spirituality is more complex, drawing on other forms of Buddhism, Daoism, Neo-Confucianism, and Shinto. His influence has recently expanded beyond poetry to nature writing and environmental philosophy. I am particularly interested in his vision of nature and its interrelatedness to culture. We still tend to think of them as separate, although the recent emphasis in nature writing and geography on a sense of place has important parallels to Basho’s view of nature. I have tried to highlight his view of nature and culture in the notes to the haiku, such as listing the season word. For all the sensitivity to nature we find in our nature writing, we lack the deep sense of the seasonality of nature.

RW: Why do you not agree with the one-lined method of translating Japanese haiku?

DB: I have been persuaded by the argument that a traditional three-line method of translation separates the poem more than in the original. But I also think that, because of the different conventions in our language and the limitations of translation, a one-line method is too prosaic. The original was not three lines, but it has a strong three-part 5-7-5 rhythm. My staggered lines attempt to keep the sense of rhythm while suggesting how one part flows into the next.

RW: Do you agree with Haruo Shirane's thesis that cultural memory is a crucial part of Basho's apprehension of the present, and allusions to the past are essential to our understanding of some of his hokku?

DB: Definitely. His discussion of cultural memory is brilliant and it helps us see a much deeper sense of nature and of the moment. Many of his poems are nature poems, but for him the full meaning of nature is found in its interrelatedness to culture. Similarly, many of his poems are of the “haiku moment,” but the present is pervaded and enriched by the past. I am very grateful to Professor Shirane’s work.

RW: Haikai, Hokku, and Haiku. These terms can be confusing. Please explain. Is there a difference between the terms?

DB: Haikai means something like “comic” or “vulgar,” something that does not fit the strict confines of courtly culture. Renga (linked verse) had been a courtly verse, but some wanted to break the mold and expand the range of renga, and so haikai no renga was developed. Basho’s genius was his combination of that free-spiritedness with aesthetic and religious depth. Sometimes he used the term haikai as a broader term for literary art, even art in general, if it had this more complex haikai spirit. So we can think of him as a haikai (not haiku) poet. Hokku, on the other hand, is the opening stanza of a renga sequence. It was so important that it eventually began to take on a life of its own, with poets writing just the hokku without the linked sequence. Basho wrote hokku (not haiku) poems. The great modern poet Shiki wanted to sever hokku from its function in a linked verse, and he emphasized the aesthetic of a “sketch” of a moment of nature. To indicate this change, he used a new term, haiku, for what had been called hokku. So haiku is a modern term Basho did not use. But the term haiku is ingrained in our culture, even when thinking of Basho. The result is indeed confusion. If we want to be historically correct, we should speak of Basho’s hokku. But haiku is the only single term we could use for what Basho wrote and what contemporary poets in Japan and around the world write. I use hokku when I’m in an academic context, haiku when I’m not. We certainly don’t want to get too hung up on terminology.

RW: Steven Heine, the co-editor of Japan in Traditional and Postmodern Perspectives, says "Basho's Haiku offer the most comprehensive translation yet of the poetry of Japanese writer Matsuo Basho." What was your motivation in translating Basho's poetry and for writing this book?

DB: A long time ago, when I first became aware of Japanese poetry, I bought a copy of Harold Henderson’s An Introduction to Haiku. I really disliked his use of rhyme, but I found the notes at the bottom of the page—the Japanese in romanized form and a word-by-word translation—an irresistible invitation to translate the poems myself. As I continued to study Basho, I continued to come up with my own translations. It was odd that for a long time there was no good single volume translation of his poetry, and I had thoughts of putting out a translation. Then Makoto Ueda published his splendid Basho and His Interpreters, an exceptionally useful book with fine translations. But the more I taught Basho to university students, and the more I recognized Basho’s significance for nature writing and environmental philosophy, the more I saw a need for a more comprehensive translation that would give readers a more complete sense of his poetic corpus. And I thought giving the reader the romanized Japanese and a word-by-word translation, along with the season word and some notes, would be an invitation to others to do their own translations.

RW: You've stated, "many hokku are psychologically subtle, and the order of experiencing the images is critical to the poem's meaning. . . . If we are to capture in translation the complex experience of the Japanese poem, there must be a high priority on keeping the image order of the original.” Why is this so?

DB: When discussing the act of reading a poem, I tend to talk not of “understanding” a haiku but “entering” into it. It is an experiential, psychological experience more than an abstract intellectual one. And as short as a haiku is, there is a progression in the reading: we don’t experience the poem all at once, as we might a painting. Basho and the Japanese in general are very sophisticated in moving you through an experience. The famous “old pond” poem depends on the sequence of images.

old pond—
      a frog jumps in
           water’s sound

We start with the overall context of stillness and moistness, then we get sudden movement, then disappearance combined with sound, the water silently rippling like the sound that seems to echo in our minds, returning at last to the old pond in its stillness. To change the order of images is to change the flow of experience, which is the meaning of the poem.

RW: You've translated and arranged Basho's haiku in the order that they were written chronologically. What is your reasoning for this?

DB: Interesting you should ask this. When I first proposed the book, I put the poems in traditional Japanese season order: spring poems, then summer poems, etc. I thought that this would emphasize the seasonality of the poems and the Japanese view of nature, that it would emphasize the poems more than the poet, and that would make the book unique. One of the readers complained strongly that the reader would be confused and fail to see the development of Basho’s verse over time. So I ended up using the more Western chronological structure, but I arranged the haiku by seasons for each year of the poet’s life. There is a real advantage to that combination, but I sometimes wish I had been able to put them in purely seasonal order.

RW: Translating haiku is a complex task. Please explain the complexity of this task.

DB: There is more complexity than I could suggest in a brief reply here, but I would say that translation begins with trying to enter the experience, then looking to a refined sense of word meanings, then exploring spiritual dimensions, cultural memory, biographical context, the relation of the haiku to other of his poems and prose, the variety of existing interpretations, then integrating all that back into the experience of the moment. And of course you realize that in all cases too much is lost in translation.

RW: What is it about Basho's haiku that draws you to them, versus, say, another poet such as Buson, Issa, Shiki, or Chiyo-ni?

DB: Certainly there are some of Basho’s haiku that draw me strongly, but I think Buson is a more brilliant writer of haiku. What draws me and so many others to Basho’s haiku is Basho. His aesthetic and spiritual depth, his view of nature and culture, his life of art and his personal struggles–all of these make for an immensely compelling human being. That is why I think the true genius of Basho is found best in his prose, where we get a fuller sense of the person. (My translation of his prose is due out next year.)

RW: What was your introduction to haiku and what poet has had the biggest influence on you as scholar, poet, and lover of haiku?

DB: My introduction to haiku came from salvation! In my senior year of college I took a comparative religion course on salvation, and one section concerned Japanese literature. I didn’t get saved, but I became entranced with the acute sensitivity to nature’s beauty, its transience, and a spiritual dimension that defied words. I also began reading the American Buddhist nature poets Kenneth Rexroth and Gary Snyder, who were well versed in Japanese culture. They have influenced my life immensely. I find their combination of aesthetic and spiritual sensitivity with radical politics utterly convincing. For me, the subtlety of Basho’s life and art is complemented by social and environmental activism. It may seem odd to some, but I find the combination fruitful–and necessary.

David Barnhill is Professor of English and Director of Environmental Studies at the University of Wisconsin, Oshkosh. He previously was Chair of Religious Studies at Guilford College, North Carolina. His research interests are broad and interdisciplinary; they include Japanese literature, Buddhism, American nature writing, and environmental philosophy.

He has published articles on Matsuo Basho, and his Basho's Haiku: Selected Poems of Matsuo Basho (a translation of over 700 haiku) was recently published by State University of New York Press. A companion volume, Basho's Journey: The Literary Prose of Matsuo Basho, will be published in 2005. He has also edited an anthology of nature writing, At Home on the Earth (University of California Press, 1999), and co-edited the anthology Deep Ecology and World Religions (SUNY, 2001)

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