Simply Haiku: A Quarterly Journal of Japanese Short Form Poetry
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Winter 2006, vol 4 no 4

An Interview With Jane Hirshfield
by Michael McClintock and Robert D. Wilson

SIMPLY HAIKU: Your translation, Jane, of The Ink Dark Moon (NY: Vintage Classics, 1990, and now in its 24th printing or more), does justice to the poetry penned by Ono no Komachi and Izumi Shikubu. Reading them in English is a joy. Unfortunately, there are those who think translating a tanka from the Japanese language into English is as easy as looking up words in a Japanese/English language dictionary and assembling them to form what they feel is the poem the author had written. Translating poetry from one language to another and from one mindset to another is a difficult task and a true art. What were the difficulties you encountered in translating the waka in The Ink Dark Moon? And, as a follow-up question, what tools does a person need to have in place to be able to translate the kind of poetry you translated in this book?

JH: Let me begin by answering the second part of your question—what tools might be useful for anyone wanting to take on a similar task. First, of course, is access to what the original actually says. For me, this came in the form of the participation of my co-translator, Mariko Aratani, a native speaker of Japanese. Then, to translate any poetry, the translator needs to have within themselves the full repertory of poem making; with very few exceptions, this means being in some way a poet oneself. So, no small thing—only a full immersion in the underlying art. Next, a translator needs to have some capacity to comprehend not only the verbal surface, but the underlying experience of the poem: its heart, lungs, and bone marrow. For me, this came from being a woman who had lived a life not unlike that of the Heian women poets—love and Buddhist practice, each as essential to my life as to theirs. During my time in a Zen monastery, during my mid-twenties, I lived in a way not so very different from Komachi and Shikibu, wearing robes, living without electricity, glass windows, or heat, in a way outwardly formal and inwardly rather free. This means that I knew things in the poems from the inside out, as a plant grown on similar soil, which a more properly accredited scholar might only have been able to approximate from the outside in.

As for the difficulties, the appendix at the back of the paperback edition of The Ink Dark Moon discusses some of the differences in language and also transcribes several examples of how the poems moved, more or less easily, to their finished versions from "dictionary trot" (in this case, Mariko giving me a word by word set of all the literal possibilities for each word, in the original order, which I set down below the Japanese written out in romaji (the English alphabet). The notes to the individual poems also point out some of the places that keel scraped bottom . . . To generalize about difficulty in translation, though, is to miss the very point. The problems are always specific: A concept, such as the Japanese aware, that does not exist in English, and also holds a range of possible meanings so wide that one can hardly believe one word covers them all; from one poem to another, translating such a word is not the same task. A grammar so differently constructed that many poems in the original hold no grammatical voice at all, yet in English must almost always be turned into "I" or "you" or "he." Each poem had to be tested for which form of voice brought the most aerodynamic lift to what I felt were the poem's intentions. Then there were the technical devices—kakekotoba ("pivot words") and "pillow words," which, again, have no real equivalent in English verse and can hardly be "translated" at all, only taken into account in ways that would doubtless be unrecognizable to these poems' authors. As for the music, well, that too is specific. One thing I decided early on was not to keep to the 5-7-5-7-7 metrics, which aren't particularly audible to the American ear, and in translation, would force sacrifices of nuance and meaning in favor of syllabic count. For the music, I tried to make poems beautiful and resonant to the ear, whose sounds were those we recognize as poetry, in the same way the originals' sound would have been recognized as poetry by their first hearers.


SH: Why have you called the translation of poetry an impossible task?

JH: Because there is only one original poem, with its exact words, sounds, sheen of meanings and resonances and associations. Translations may be more successful (or less), but they can't ever be the original: only themselves, evoking an experience recognizable, related. Sometimes, it seems, even these impossible failures are enough. A great deal of the poetry I most love I know only in translation.


SH: In your book Nine Gates, you write about the difference between originality and innovation. In adapting Japanese short form poetry to the "construction of meaning" in English, how might the contemporary English language tanka poet overcome a public perception of "imitation"? And do you think the work of poets who chose to write in the Japanese short poem forms will always be overshadowed by the works in translation?

JH: I wonder if the first English poets to adopt the sonnet asked themselves a similar question—or first to adopt the villanelle, or to use rhyme rather than alliteration to form the bone structure of memorable words?

If a form is useful, and used well, it will eventually come to feel native. If not, it very often still informs the "new" language's aesthetic. There is no contemporary poet who is not already writing in ways influenced by Japanese and Chinese poetry. This happened near the start of the 20th century, with the Imagists' and the Modernists' adaptations of East Asian aesthetic forms, so parallel to what happened in the visual arts. Gauguin, Bonnard, Van Gogh, all have paintings recognizably dipped in the aesthetic of Japanese screens and prints. The history of Western painting consumed that influence whole and galloped on, and in one sense, American poetry has already done the same.

The question of how the actual Japanese poem forms (or, for that matter, the Urdu ghazal) can and will be made our own is the same as with any aspect of good poetry—we make a new poetic strategy our own when we begin to sound more like ourselves than the poets we learned it from. There are imitation Sharon Olds out there, imitation Jorie Grahams, imitation James Tates. It's the same problem, not a different one, with tanka and haiku. Richard Wilbur is one example of a poet who has integrated the occasional haiku seamlessly into his body of work. No big deal about it—he just writes them, and puts them into his books. They don't sound like Basho or Issa, they sound like Wilbur. Most of his readers probably don't even realize they are reading a haiku.

This, I suppose, is the most likely path to a real integration of these forms into American poetry—when haiku and tanka begin to commingle seamlessly with the broader landscape. I do see the conscious practice communities of haiku and tanka writers as doing important work in developing an American voiced tradition for these forms. But if they are to become as naturalized as the sonnet, they will need to scatter more seed into the broader poetic landscape. Meanwhile, when I've occasionally judged a tanka competition, I've seen poems I do find truly realized achievements. It's interesting to me that even when I judge the poems anonymously, I recognize the names of the winners when I'm told them. It means that these tanka practitioners are truly doing something distinctive and recognizable—one definition of a developed voice.


SH: You wrote, ". . . there must be something in addition to words, an underlying sense of a destination unknown but also there, which makes us accept one phrase and reject another when they rise to mind in a poem's first making, or delete or alter or add when we revise. The act of writing a poem is not only a making but also a following: of the mystery of source as it emerges into form, of the wisdom of the heart and mind as it encounters the wisdom of language. The act of translation constitutes a leap of faith, a belief that somehow this part of a poem that lives both through words and beyond words can be kept alive, can move from its life in one verbal body into another." Please elucidate.

JH: That passage talks about something almost indescribable. Perhaps we can just leave it here for your readers to make of what they will? Or at least to use to find their way if they want to the full length essay about translation, along with the adjacent one on Japanese poetry?

[Note from Simply Haiku: Both essays appear in Jane Hirshfield's Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry (NY: HarperCollins, 1997)]


SH: The poetry in your other books, with few exceptions, shares more of a kinship with Western poetry. Was it hard for you to step into the mindset of Komachi and Shikibu, one that is far removed from the cultural memories and social context of a person who grew up in America?

JH: As I mentioned earlier, by the time I undertook the translation, I had practiced Zen full time for some years, and become in some way a poet myself (I'd received a Guggenheim for my own work, and it was during that year that the idea arose to do this book). I had also known the beginnings and ends of passion. So it wasn't hard at all—the actual work of translating was more like a falling in love, a seductive immersion and exhilaration that made the difficulties all the more desired. Each week Mariko and I would meet to discuss a new set of poems, and I was ravenous to find out what would be there.

As for the question of my own, more "Western" seeming poems—I needed and wanted to find my own voice and my own path, as a woman, as a Zen practitioner, and as a poet. This meant not only not sounding like Shikibu or Komachi or Basho, it also meant not sounding like Gary Snyder, Philip Whalen, Lew Welch, Allen Ginsberg, Diane diPrima, or Anne Waldman. Or Horace, Akhmatova, Whitman, or Dickinson, for that matter. I've learned something from every one of these poets. But if I'd written in Komachi and Shikibu's forms, especially knowing them so intimately as I did, it would have been hard not to fall into their voices along with their line lengths. Less familiarity might have allowed me to do that more, with less risk of losing myself.


SH: What is it about the poetry of Ono no Komachi and Izumi Shikibu that inspired you to translate their waka into English, making them accessible to English language readers?

JH: When I was eighteen and an undergraduate in college, I read about a half dozen or so of these women's poems—all that were then available in the various translated anthologies. They spoke to me in ways so new, powerful, intimate, and revelatory that I knew I wanted to read more. As it turned out, the only way to do that was to co-translate them. I waited fifteen years for someone else to do what to me was an obviously needed book. Meanwhile, that handful of poems changed the course of my life, I have no doubt. And when I undertook The Ink Dark Moon, some of those poems changed it further. A great poem can do that: thirty-one syllables can be as powerful as the Army Corps of Engineers, turning a river.


SH: Can a "major poem" be written in five lines? What future do you see for the short poem in English? Is it possible that English language tanka might be successful in introducing into English literature a kind of short poetry that fully measures up to the achievements of the more traditional, longer poetic forms? And might it be fair to say that many of the English canon's finest moments, most remembered lines, and highest achievements in meaningful expression, past and present, appear in fact to reside in a relatively few muscular, irreducible lines that are themselves embedded in long slabs of otherwise extraneous, non-essential verse?

JH: The constellating and concentrating phrase is surely the string by which the kite of a poem (however large) is mostly held in the mind. A person cannot hold the whole of anything, only the part that can be grasped in the hands' few-inch grasp. The rest balances on the few turning words very often. But no, I wouldn't say that "Tintern Abbey" or "The Four Quartets" are mostly extraneous and non-essential words. There are gestures of the human psyche that can only be made in concert with time's felt passage, only made by the powers of accumulated music, language, shared event and thought.

Can a five line poem be as great as one of five hundred? Most Western literary critics wouldn't hesitate to say that only the large works are truly great. I believe them wrong, though one cannot argue with something as subjective as the sense of what constitutes "greatness." For me, Issa's haiku holds the whole of the human condition:

On a branch
floating downriver,
a cricket, singing.

Komachi's poem, in a different way, as well:

How invisibly
it changes color
in this world,
the flower
of the human heart.

But such questions, asked in either direction, ask us to weigh a diamond or pearl or seed against a hayfield, lake, or mountain, or against a herd of milk cows or giraffes. Such acts of relative comparison should be left to economists, I think; they're only distractions for the true lovers of poems.


Jane Hirshfield Jane Hirshfield, whose work has been called "passionate and radiant" by the New York Times Book Review, is the author of six books of poems, including the newly published After (HarperCollins, 2006), a Poetry Book Society Choice and current T.S. Eliot Prize finalist in the UK, and Given Sugar, Given Salt, a finalist for the 2001 National Book Critics Circle Award and winner of the Bay Area Book Reviewers Award. Other poetry titles include Alaya (Quarterly Review of Literature Series, 1982), Of Gravity & Angels (Wesleyan University Press, 1988), The October Palace (HarperCollins, 1994), and The Lives of the Heart (HarperCollins, 1997). Hirshfield is also the author of a now-classic book of essays, Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry (HarperCollins, 1997), and editor and co-translator of three similarly classic collections of poetry by women writers of the past, Women in Praise of the Sacred (HarperCollins, 1994), The Ink Dark Moon: Poems by Komachi and Shikibu; Women of the Ancient Japanese Court (Vintage Classics, 1990), and Mirabai: Ecstatic Poems (Beacon Press, 2004, with Robert Bly).

Born in New York City in 1953 and educated at Princeton University, Hirshfield has received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Guggenheim and Rockefeller Foundations, and the 70th Annual Fellowship of the Academy of American Poets, an honor previously held by Robert Frost, Ezra Pound, Elizabeth Bishop, and William Carlos Williams. Her books have received the Poetry Center Book Award, the California Book Award, and numerous other honors. Her poetry, which has appeared in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, The Nation, The New Republic, The Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post and many literary periodicals, has been selected multiple times for both The Best American Poetry and Pushcart Prize anthologies. Her books have appeared on bestseller lists in San Francisco, Detroit, Canberra, and Krakow. Featured in two Bill Moyers PBS poetry specials, Fooling with Words and The Sound of Poetry, Hirshfield has taught at the University of California, Berkeley, the University of San Francisco, Bennington College's MFA Writing Seminars, and has been a visiting poet at many universities in the US and abroad.