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Summer 2005, vol 3 no 2


Interview ~ Sam Hamill
by Robert D. Wilson

RW:To what extent did Chinese poetry, especially the poetry of theTang Dynasty, influence Basho's haiku and poetical voice? And did this influence steer him away from the state of haiku as it was practiced during his day?

SH: Basho went to school on the poets of the High T'ang, and he claimed to have never traveled without the Chuang Tzu in his bag. His famous anti-war haiku:

Summer grasses:
all that remains of great soldiers'
imperial dreams

This, one of his most famous haikai, makes a very powerful allusion to Tu Fu's famous quatrain (extracted from a longer poem):

The whole country devastated,
only mountains and rivers remain.
In springtime at the ruined capital,
the grass is always green.

Many Japanese poets are fond of saying, "Haiku began and ended with Basho." Haiku has always stood apart from conventional poetry, but Basho re-invented and elevated the art, bringing it into kado, the Way of Poetry, the way of haiku. Basho's writings overflow with allusions and quotations from Chinese classics. He brought Zen discipline and seriousness and humor to what had been too much a parlor game for the court literati.

And only Issa is in his company when it comes to haibun.

RW: You stated in the introduction to your translation of Basho's Narrow Road To The Interior, that "Basho believed in codependent origination, a Buddhist idea holding that all things are fully interdependent even at the point of origin; that no thing is or can be completely self-originating." In layman's terms, what does this mean and how did Basho's belief in co-dependent origination affect his haiku?

SH: It means, among other things, that any sense of "self" independent of others and of "nature" is pure illusion. We originate in relationship with the world(s) around us. Hence Basho's insistence that we "become at one with nature." We ARE nature.

My poems are not "my" poems exclusively. Within my poetry one encounters Basho, Issa, Tu Fu, Chuang Tzu, Lao Tzu . . . and on and on. I could not have written what I have without their influence. They have been the nourishment that fed my roots. They ARE my roots. They are part of ME. I am made by them. It's the same in watching these great northwest red cedars grow up around my cottage from more than three decades. Is that great cedar inside the mind or outside? It IS mind. It is mind that "i" am a small part of.

Just as we have deep literary roots, we have deep roots in a particular way of life. For me, that has meant carrying on—as best I can—the very traditions and values of Basho and Tu Fu, et alia.
There is a lot of wonderful Zen teaching in Basho's work, and a healthy dose of Taoism in that teaching. Artists stand on the shoulders of those who preceded them. We are leaves on a growing tree. When Lao Tzu says, "The Tao is not humane," he means that the universe does not exist on our behalf; it is not ego-centric. Basho understands that "enlightenment" is a path, not a destination, and that poetry and haikai are steps toward or into insight. In the best haiku, the real poetry is in the silence at the end of the seventeen (or so) syllables.

RW: How important is kake kotoba (pivot word) and its attendant ambiguity to the composition of haiku?

SH: It's central to the poetry, both in terms of the rhythm of speech and comprehension and in terms of structure. "Form is never more than an extension of content," Robert Creeley famously observed; to which Denise Levertov replied, "And content is an articulation of form." I don't call my 17-syllable poems haiku because I throw out too many rules. Kake kotoba is difficult, sometime almost impossible, to achieve in translating a poem from Japanese. In my own poetry, I use the basic structure to achieve something LIKE haiku, but technically—chigaimasu—a little different.

Nevertheless, there are a great many American haiku poets whose work I admire.

The pivot word is a powerful tool. Ambiguity and contradiction abound in Zen and Taoist teaching, and great poets make use of common tools.

RW: How relevant is rational thought to haiku and its correlation to zen thinking?

SH: Too much rational thinking is probably as destructive and limiting as too much irrational thought. Dreams, after all, are also reality, just in different attire. When Basho writes his famous haiku about the frog "plunging into / the sound of water" he is making a huge imaginative leap. That poor poem has been frequently butchered by translators unable to make the leap WITH Basho. That frog is NOT leaping into water, but into the SOUND of water.

How does one, rationally, "leap into sound?" Great metaphors often engage an element of the irrational:

Has this harvest moon
suddenly burst into blossom
in the cotton field?

The cicadas' cries "sink into stone" in another haiku. Basho masters discipline so that he can "forget the rules." He means to have the real elements (or rules) of haiku and poetry so deeply embedded in one's practice that one doesn't think of them at all in the act of composition.

The balance between rational and irrational is an element of all great art. And of Zen practice and of the Tao. The "irrational" is as much "nature" and our "rational" thoughts and actions. What was rational about the US invading Iraq? What is rational about writing poetry or composing music? That need to make an art of communication is largely an irrational impulse. Why make simple communication difficult by introducing elements of music and metaphor and pivot words and pillow words? And yet it formed the very foundation of Basho's practice.

RW: You have written that "Basho spent many years struggling to 'learn how to listen as things speak for themselves.' " Why was this important to Basho? At the same time, Basho's model for this belief, Saigyo, (1118-1190), spoke of "the relative unimportance of mere personality." Is this something poets should pay heed to today in the writing of haiku?

SH: Despite not being (technically) Zen, a very good case could be made for calling Saigyo the most influential Zen poet in Japanese history. He changed the way Buddhist poets practiced; he became the model for the Zen mountain recluse-poet in his ten-foot square hut. He was Basho's master, Ryokan's master, and grandfather to the Zen poetry traditions of Japan. He is a mountain.

"Self," as I said earlier, is an illusion. And yet not entirely an illusion because each of us is unique, just as no two roses are identical, no two koi, no two sparrows. We each perceive from a unique perspective and we each feel the need to connect with fellow humans and with the world we inhabit.
In an age of psychobabble, "personality" becomes an illusory commodity.

It's complex because poets (artists) need ego (or personality) in order to be driven to master their craft, but in order to master their craft, the ego must be made to all but disappear. How much does it matter, when reading Paradise Lost, that Milton was a jerk? Well, if we understand that he taught his daughters to pronounce Latin, but not to understand it, so they could read to him as he went blind, we may think we understand a little of why Satan is the most appealing character in his epic. Milton was a devious guy. But have we gained any real appreciation of the poem?

The personalities of often self-destructive artists may be titillating, but how much does it really help to know that Jackson Pollock was alcoholic or that Allen Ginsberg was fond of marijuana or that Sam Coleridge was a junkie?

When people get too involved with their own personalities, they lose. There are a lot more people who want to be poets than there are people seriously interested in poetry. They hear, "Live like a poet and you'll write like one," and they model their lives on the poets that inspire them. Some drink themselves into oblivion; some attain high office in academia; some imitate the self-destructive behavior while avoiding the rigorous discipline that produced good art.

"Personality" is mostly in the eye of the observer.

RW: What did Basho mean when he told poets to abide by the rules then to cast them aside in their quest to realize true freedom in the composition of haiku? Is he suggesting that we should study the rules of haiku before forging new paths? Is he encouraging us to take chances, to forge new paths in our haiku walk? And is this chance taking how Basho, as you state, completely redefined haiku and transformed haibun?

SH: Yes. As mentioned, I believe one MUST INVEST in rigorous study and discipline in order to be free. I mean this in EVERY WAY. Freedom is not self-indulgence, it is not a form of irresponsibility. True freedom is understanding choices and options and responsibilities.

But I don't think of Basho as a "chance-taker." He was highly conscious of polishing his masterpiece, Narrow Road to the Interior, over several years. And yet his work is full of genuine spontaneity. That spontaneity is so compelling, so artful, BECAUSE he went to school on Chuang Tzu, Lao Tzu, Tu Fu, Saigyo and the rules of haiku and other verse forms.

RW: Summer grasses---
            all that remains of great soldiers'
                  imperial dreams

Every time I read your translation of Basho's poignant haiku about war, I am reminded of your active stance in opposing war. Ed Tick and I have written books of haiku/haibun about the Vietnam War. Is this a valid use of haiku and can haiku be used to speak out against war and other social injustices? Or is it the role of haiku to remain neutral?

SH: Is Basho's poem "neutral?" Hayden Carruth writes (haiku-like)

Why speak of the use
of poetry? Poetry
is what uses us.

Basho's poem is what it is—the greatest little anti-war poem ever written. No one can change that, no matter how much you believe that "neutrality" exists. It does not. Basho was following the path of Zen and as a Buddhist believed that killing people is wrong and that war leads only to suffering.

I simply present my translation of Basho's poem. I've added, in my translation, an element of interpretation or explanation, it's true; but I believe my master would approve.

I don't "use" it; I present it. What you make of it is up to you.

I sent that poem to Gen. Schwartzkopf as I translated Basho during the first Gulf War. I got back a nice letter from the Dept. of Defense thanking me for supporting our troops.

RW: I ask this insofar as R. H. Blyth stated that in haiku, "All the painful problems of our life are bypassed . . . haiku avoids hyperbole. All violent scenes and emotions." [from Japanese Life and Character in Senryu, pp. 2 and 29.] If one is to accept that as so, does one not have to tread a fine line with poems relating to war? Basho certainly handled this poem with finesse, yet derived total impact from what he chose to portray. There is no way one can misconstrue his criticism of war! Would you say such subject matter must be used judiciously in haiku poetry?

SH: Blyth was wrong. Haiku does NOT avoid scenes and emotions. Hyperbole? Find a tear in a fish's eye; think of a trapped octopus about to be served as sashimi; think of the very high arts expressed as mono-no-aware, the beauty found in the temporality of things. Think of the emotion of the image of a single crow on a bare branch in late autumn.

I like Blyth. I love Blyth. But sometimes he just doesn't get it.

RW: What is it that drew you to Japanese poetry and to Basho?

SH: Well, Blyth. A little Peter Pauper book from the 30s I read as a child. But I quit haiku in my 20s and 30s, foolishly thinking I didn't love it. I began translating a lot of waka, the 5-7-5-7-7 musical measure being pleasing to me, and so much of it unknown in the west. When my editor at Shambhala asked me to translate Narrow Road, I initially declined. But then I got a Japanese copy and fell in love with Basho and spent about eight years immersed in his work. He became one of my masters.

Kenneth Rexroth got me reading Japanese and Chinese poetry seriously when I was a teenager on the streets of San Francisco in the late 50s. He had just published his famous One Hundred Poems from the Chinese. He, Alan Watts, Gary Snyder, and Phil Whalen all got me interested in Zen. I ended up enlisting in the Marine Corps in order to get to Japan. While serving in Okinawa, I began learning my first words in Japanese and began my sitting practice. It changed my life forever . . . sitting practice. That was in 1961. It changed my life forever.


Sam Hamill is the author of fourteen volumes of original poetry including Almost Paradise: Selected Poems & Translations; Destination Zero: Poems 1970-1995, Gratitude, and Dumb Luck; three collections of essays (including A Poet’s Work), and two dozen volumes translated from ancient Greek, Latin, Estonian, Japanese, and Chinese, most recently, Tao Te Ching; The Essential Chuang Tzu; The Poetry of Zen; Narrow Road to the Interior & Other Writings of Basho; and Crossing the Yellow River: Three Hundred Poems from the Chinese.

He is editor of The Gift of Tongues: Twenty-five Years of Poetry from Copper Canyon Press; The Erotic Spirit; Selected Poems of Thomas McGrath; (with Bradford Morrow) The Complete Poems of Kenneth Rexroth, and Selected Poems of Hayden Carruth.

He is Founding Editor of Copper Canyon Press and was Editor there from 1972 through 2004.

He taught in prisons for fourteen years, in artist-in-residency programs for twenty years, and has worked extensively with battered women and children. He has been the recipient of fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Guggenheim Foundation, the Woodrow Wilson Foundation, the Mellon Fund, the U.-Japan Friendship Commission, two Washington Governor’s Arts Awards, the Stanley Lindberg Lifetime Achievement Award for Editing, and the Washington Poets Association Lifetime Achievement Award for poetry. His work has been translated into more than a dozen languages.

In January, 2003, he founded Poets Against War, compiling the largest single-theme anthology in history, and edited a best-selling selection, Poets Against the War (Nation Books, 2003).

He lives with his wife, the painter Gray Foster, in a home he built himself in the cedar woods near Port Townsend, Washington.

Copyright 2005: Simply Haiku