Interview ~ David Barnhill
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?
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.
Why do you not agree with the one-lined method of translating Japanese
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
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?
Haikai means something like “comic” or “vulgar,” something
that does not fit the strict confines of courtly culture. Renga (linked
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?
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?
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.
a frog jumps in
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
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)
2005: Simply Haiku