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Autumn 2005, vol 3 no 3


Interview With Professor Makoto Ueda,
Professor Emeritus, Stanford University
by Robert D. Wilson

RW: You have written several volumes on the life and poetry of Matsuo Basho. Why Basho?

MU: As a young student who had arrived from Japan, I was homesick and looking for something uniquely Japanese, and medieval Japan of all things attracted me the most. I became interested in Basho along with other writers, since he was a poet who admired medieval Japanese values, such as sabi, for his aesthetic and moral ideals. Then at a certain party I met with the late Dr. Roy Teele, who was the Japan editor of the Twayne World Author Series; he asked my opinions as to who should be on the series. I answered that someone ought to write on Basho. Several weeks later I was surprised to find on my desk a contract with Twayne to write a Basho book. That was the beginning of my serious interest in Basho. I have other interests, however; I have written books on Buson and Issa, for example (The Path of Flowering Thorn and Dew on Grass).


RW: How did Matsuo Basho elevate haiku to a mature art form?

MU: Haiku before Basho's time was more or less an urban game or pastime written on lighthearted occasions. Almost singlehandedly, Basho turned it into serious poetry by making it true to actual human experience, to what the poet actually saw and felt, with all sincerity and faithfulness. Basho did not completely reject the playfulness characteristic of prior haiku, but he showed that haiku was capable of embodying, in its brief form, all the various feelings and moods of human life. At one time, he even suggested that those feelings and moods were more important than haiku itself: "Haiku may well be nonexistent," he is reported to have said, "but those who neither harmonize with the ways of the world nor know the feelings of people must be said to be the least artistic." In other words, to understand human feelings and give appropriate form to them is basic to haiku.


RW: You wrote in 1970 that Basho “always encouraged his students to cultivate their individual talents rather than to follow him with blind faith,” ending your statement with Basho’s haiku:

Do not resemble me—
Never be like a musk melon
Cut in two identical halves

Would you elucidate?

MU: When a musk melon is cut in half, each piece looks the same. Thus, in the Japanese language, halves of a melon were often used as a simile to describe two identical things. Probably melon slices were served when Basho wrote the haiku in question. He compared himself to one half of a melon and told his friend not to be the other half that looked exactly the same. His friend was a merchant, so Basho had all the more reason to want him not to be like an artist. The haiku, when it is seen by itself, has more general implications: the teacher wants each of his students to develop his own talent and explore his own area.


RW: Some of Basho’s haiku are simple observations. Others are complex, steeped in imagery and metaphor. What do you think Basho looked for when writing a haiku? Did Basho adhere to a formula or a specific set of rules when composing haiku? Or do you think he allowed his material to dictate the course he took, as his poems are so varied in treatment? For example, there are those that hinge upon the juxtaposition of disparate images for effect; there are others which seem to just portray a simple continuous image which has its own reverberations.

MU: Basho did not adhere to a specific set of rules, even though he seems to have greatly respected Chinese poetic ideals, sabi, or karumi at various times of his career. He was open to any poetic or rhetorical technique that would produce the desired effect. Thus, at one time, he is reported to have taught: "Haiku should be made like a piece of gold, beaten and stretched." At another time, he reportedly observed: "Haiku is made by bringing disparate objects together." The former comment seems to refer to a haiku that presents a simple continuous image; the latter comment indicates a haiku that hinges upon a juxtaposition of different images. Basho's own haiku shows plenty of examples of both as well as many others that lie around or between them.


RW: You have written that “People reading Basho's haiku sometimes feel they have not seen the whole of what they wanted to see because his haiku refuse to over explain the experience they represent.” Please expound on this.

MU: I am not sure I can expound on it satisfactorily, but I think Basho can be compared to a mountain climber who has climbed to a spot of 20,000 feet on a 25,000 foot mountain. Compare him to a climber who is satisfied when he reaches the top of a 10,000 foot mountain and enjoys the view from there. Basho's haiku seems to have something that does not completely show itself, no matter how hard the reader looks at it. Of course, haiku is a verse form that thrives on ambiguities, yet Basho's works too many times leave part of the ambiguities unexplained. To take an example,

above the moon
not attached to anything
a skylark sings

can be read as a poem of the happy skylark singing to its heart's content in the vast sky, or a poem of a lonely lark unsupported by anything in the infinite space, or a poem of the writer's being envious of the lark's freedom. Was Basho happy, sad, envious, lonesome, or resigned when he wrote the poem? An ordinary poet might have used some word that would suggest the emotion, but Basho did not. He appears to have written more poems like this than other poets.


RW: Early Japanese poets wrote haiku in the traditional 5/7/5 onji format. Yet today, many in the English- speaking world have strayed away from this, declaring it too long to simulate the brief one-breath Japanese haiku. But what is interesting is that some Japanese haiku poets have elected to follow this “free-style” haiku. Why do you suppose that is?

MU: Free-style (Jiyuritsu) haiku was popular largely in the 1910s and 1920s, with poets like Ogiwara Seisensui (1884-1976), Ozaki Hosai (1885-1926), and Taneda Santoka (1882-1940). Since then it was steadily in decline; today there is no major (or noteworthy) poet who writes it. Seisensui himself co-authored a book called An Introduction to Short Free Verse in 1973, apparently giving up free verse style haiku to which he devoted his entire life. Free-style haiku was born on the assumption that it was true to what the poet felt at the creative moment, for it did not restrict the expression of emotion by imposing a predetermined form. According to Seisensui's claim, it differed from free verse in two points: it dealt with nature in subject matter, and it was centripetal in structure. But poets in general were indifferent to that; they would rather write free verse, which treats nature among other things and which can have a centripetal structure among other things. In other words, free-style haiku is short free verse, as Seisensui came to concede shortly before his death.


RW: What do you think it is about Basho’s haiku that appeals to poets internationally?

MU: Basho was a poet who contained multitude, so that each reader sees what he or she wants to see in him. As I said in Matsuo Basho, those who admired Basho "would find in him almost anything they sought---a town dandy, a youthful dreamer, a Buddhist recluse, a lonely wanderer, a nihilistic misanthrope, a happy humorist, an enlightened sage." Ezra Pound was attracted to what he called "The Technique of super-position" in Basho's haiku. R.H. Blyth felt Basho's poetry had the "flavor of zen." D.J. Salinger seems to have been fascinated with the impersonal nature of Basho's haiku. As I said before, his poems refuse to completely explain the experience they embody; each reader is free to supply his or her desire in places that are left unexplained. I think this lies at the root of Basho's attention.


RW: What can we learn today from Basho’s poetry?

MU: Different people will learn different things from Basho's writings, but I learn most from his way of life. He believed in poetry like religion and spent his life continuously trying to realize that belief. "There is a common element permeating Saigyo's waka, Sogi's linked verse, Sesshu's painting, and Rikyu's tea ceremony," he wrote. "It is the poetic spirit, the spirit that leads on to follow the ways of the universe and to become a friend of the seasons." His life was a vigorous search for the poetic spirit. "I kept wandering aimlessly like a cloud while singing of flowers and birds, until that became even the source of my livelihood. With no other talent to resort to, now I can only cling to this thin string of haiku." On his deathbed he still kept wandering:

on a journey, ill---
my dreams roam
over a wild moor

That is the kind of passion I envy and wish to have myself.


RW: In conclusion, what led you down the path you have chosen in life, to become an eminent scholar, translator, lecturer, and author?

MU: I am just an ordinary scholar, translator, and author. Originally I came from Japan as a student majoring in English, but after a while I switched my major to comparative literature and received a PhD in it. That almost automatically placed me at the University of Toronto, then at Stanford. Haiku is one of my areas of specialization--undoubtedly my favorite. I think I like haiku because I can easily look at a haiku poem as a whole. It takes a certain amount of effort to read a novel or a play or even a non-haiku poem, since it is longer. To criticize a work of literature, I have first to read it and examine its shape as a whole. Haiku is easy to do so because it is only of seventeen syllables and printed in one line of Japanese. That does not mean haiku is simple, but I at least have the entire visible parts right before my eyes. Or am I just defending laziness?


Makoto Ueda is Professor Emeritus of Japanese Literature at Stanford University in California and the author of numerous books about Japanese short form poetry. He earned a PhD in Comparative Literature in 1962.

~ Matsuo Basho: The Master Haiku Poet (1970)
~ Modern Japanese Haiku, an Anthology (1976)
~ Explorations: Essays in Comparative Literature (1986), ISBN 0819155136
~ Basho and His Interpreters: Selected Hokku With Commentary (1992)
~ Modern Japanese Tanka (1996)
~ Far Beyond the Field: Haiku by Japanese Women (2003)
~ The Path of the Flowering Thorn: The Life and Poetry of Yosa Buson (1998).
~ Light Verse from the Floating World. An Anthology of Premodern Japanese Senryu (1999)
   (electronic book)
~ Dew on the Grass. The Life and Poetry of Kobayashi Issa (2004), ISBN 9004137238

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