by Robert D. Wilson
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:
all that remains of great soldiers'
This, one of his most
famous haikai, makes a very powerful allusion to Tu Fu's famous
(extracted from a longer poem):
only mountains and rivers
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
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.
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
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.
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
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
end of the seventeen (or so) syllables.
important is kake kotoba (pivot word) and its attendant ambiguity to
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
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.
How relevant is rational thought to haiku and its correlation
much rational thinking is probably as destructive and limiting
as too much irrational thought. Dreams, after
are also reality,
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
to make the
leap WITH Basho. That frog is NOT leaping into water,
but into the SOUND of water.
does one, rationally, "leap
into sound?" Great
metaphors often engage an element of the irrational:
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
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
of the Tao.
The "irrational" is as much "nature" and
our "rational" thoughts and actions. What
was rational about the US invading Iraq? What
about writing poetry or composing
That need to make an art of communication is largely
an irrational impulse. Why make simple communication
by introducing elements
and metaphor and pivot words and pillow words? And
yet it formed the very foundation of Basho's practice.
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
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
Zen poet in
He changed the way Buddhist poets practiced; he
became the model for the Zen
mountain recluse-poet in his ten-foot square hut.
Basho's master, Ryokan's master, and grandfather
to the Zen poetry
traditions of Japan.
He is a mountain.
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
with the world
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
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,
Well, if we
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
character in his
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
help to know
was alcoholic or that Allen Ginsberg was fond
of marijuana or that Sam
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
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
some attain high office
some imitate the self-destructive behavior
while avoiding the rigorous discipline that
produced good art.
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 forge new
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
it is not a form of irresponsibility.
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
all that remains
of great soldiers'
Every time I read your translation
of Basho's poignant haiku about
of your active stance
war. Ed Tick
and I have
of haiku/haibun about the Vietnam War.
Is this a valid use of haiku and
against war and other social
is it the role
of haiku to remain neutral?
Basho's poem "neutral?" Hayden
Carruth writes (haiku-like)
Why speak of the use
of poetry? Poetry
is what uses us.
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
I simply present my
translation of Basho's poem. I've added, in my
translation, an element of
interpretation or explanation,
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
I got back a
nice letter from
the Dept. of
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,
total impact from what
he chose to portray.
There is no way one can
his criticism of war!
Would you say such subject
must be used judiciously
in haiku poetry?
SH: Blyth was wrong.
Haiku does NOT avoid scenes
and emotions. Hyperbole?
a tear in a fish's
of a trapped
octopus about to
be served as sashimi;
think of the very high
as mono-no-aware, the
beauty found in the
temporality of things.
Think of the emotion
image of a
a bare branch in late
I like Blyth. I love
Blyth. But sometimes
he just doesn't
is it that drew
you to Japanese
poetry and to
Blyth. A little Peter Pauper
the 30s I
read as a child.
But I quit
my 20s and
didn't love it. I
translating a lot
of waka, the 5-7-5-7-7
pleasing to me, and
so much of it
unknown in the west.
When my editor at
Road, I initially declined.
then I got a
Japanese copy and
fell in love with
eight years immersed
in his work.
became one of my
Kenneth Rexroth got
me reading Japanese
I was a teenager
streets of San
Francisco in the
late 50s. He had
his famous One
Hundred Poems from the Chinese.
and Phil Whalen
I ended up
the Marine Corps
in order to get
I began learning
first words in
Japanese and began my sitting
practice. It changed
. . sitting practice.
in 1961. It