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Robert Wilson Interview for Simply Haiku
Robert Wilson: Your new book, Basho: The Complete Haiku, is a major undertaking. You state in your introduction, “this is the first time that all of Bashō’s accredited poems have been translated into English by a non-Japanese. “ What inspired you to write this book and to take on the difficult task of translating Basho’s haiku?
JR: The Basho book is the culmination of most of my haiku-writing experience. I first discovered Basho’s work in 1967, when I bought a copy of Cherry Blossoms, the third in the Peter Pauper Press series. For the next twenty years all the haiku I wrote, were in four lines with 5,7,5 syllables. In 1980, when I was living in Hamburg, Germany, I went to the local dentist and somehow the nurse and I started talking about haiku. As fate would have it, she was writing her doctor’s dissertation on the subject and was, in fact, just preparing to make a trip to the USA to visit haiku writers. Thus, Sabine Sommerkamp, who lived only a few blocks from me, had all the latest information about haiku groups, the newest books and magazines. For weeks I was totally immersed in catching up. It was very clear that the Americans were writing very different haiku than I was. So I subscribed to Modern Haiku, Frogpond, Red Pagoda, and others. With each issue I would pick out the poems I admired and wrote those in a large, leather-bound book which I still have and occasionally still read.
RW: How hard was it to translate Basho’s haiku given the complexities often found in his haiku?
JR: Basho was an excellent writer. I was always amazed when I would look up the words he used in his poems to find that he had picked the very word with the most numerous meanings. I did not find this “hard” but very exciting and stimulating. I put a few miles on my own English thesaurus looking for the best word to convey the breadth of meaning his poem had. Japanese, because of its limitation of possible sound units and ways to combine them, often have to re-use the same word over and over. However English does the same thing. Think of all the meanings of the word “strike” or “hit” – all nouns and verbs to see how rich English is. So I had two very rich languages and it was challenging to match up images and the best words. In some cases the Japanese poem could have two distinct versions and Kodansha allowed me to present both even though it messed up their page layouts. Up until the last days before the presses rolled, I was still changing my mind about one word or another.
RW: You wrote in the book’s introduction, “By reading the poems of Bashō, the astute reader can learn to define the various techniques he used.”
JR: All poetry is learned by imitation. People learn to write haiku by imitating the Japanese haiku as it is translated. In order to understand completely what one is imitating, we need to know, or try to know, what the intent of the original author was. To best translate a haiku, it helps a lot to know which of the many techniques Basho was using. As I studied his techniques, I found I suddenly had a tool to use in measuring the success of my own haiku. Reading Basho’s poems can inspire one with new subject matter or occasions for discovering haiku, but by exploring how he wrote his poems can today’s writer write the best haiku. Though subjects and ways of thinking about haiku have changed, the techniques, because they are the basis of poetry, remain the same. We have added some more, but most of his are still valid for us today.
RW: Some people in the English language haiku community espouse the belief that metaphors are an anathema to be avoided at all costs when writing haiku. Do you agree?
JR: Haiku is poetry and as poetry it uses poetical devices. Metaphor is one of the oldest techniques and the Japanese use, and used, it in their poetry in haiku form also. The huge and vital difference is the way the Japanese express their metaphors. It sometimes takes a while to understand how when two images are set side by side they are forming a metaphor or simile.
RW: You assert that “Many contemporary haiku educators are uncomfortable with the idea that something as workman-like as a technique can be used in the same breath with the holiness and sublime atmosphere of a haiku.” What brings you to this conclusion?
JR: Perhaps I have too many scars from the years of reading articles for haiku instruction that were reduced to information about having a “moment” when no information was given on the actual skills one needs to write a haiku. Still today, many people believe that if one experiences a moment with a pure enough heart and with the simplicity of child-like vision, one can write the best haiku. What they were giving as education about haiku was how to be inspired to write a haiku, not exactly how to find the best words to express the haiku. When I first published my techniques I received some irate letters about how I was ruining the purity of haiku. One person still will not speak to me because I published the techniques.
RW: You write, Jane, about a mental and emotional journey the Japanese author of a haiku gives readers versus composing haiku that “tell all.” Would you elucidate?
JR: One of the skills people often fail to realize they need is the ability to read a haiku. They think: “Ah, so few simple words. Even a first grader could read this.” The glory of haiku is the fact that it forces the reader to take an active part, to become part-poet, to supply parts of the poem. In these seconds of interaction, the author, the poem, and the reader become one. What a miracle! That is something to celebrate! In most mainstream contemporary poetry the author is telling the reader what to think, what to believe, what to do. The haiku author places signposts made of verbs and nouns along the path to guide the reader, carrying his or her own images of the scene, with a backpack of remembered emotions, to the same conclusion. I can never remember any of my haiku, but only yesterday someone called to tell me how touched they were by this one:
The experience reader can take those five words, place them in scenes they know, and relive that moment in their own images. By the haiku leading their mind to certain images they already have stored, but by showing them a new combination, the reader can come to an un-named and unspoken idea that I also experienced. Think of how a science book would explain the same phenomena.
RW: You write about the Japanese use of “wordplay, hidden meanings, euphemisms and cultural hot words,” in the writing of haiku. How do these tools help a reader to achieve a deeper, more enriched understanding of Basho’s poetry?
JR: One of the tests of a haiku is how many levels of meaning it can contain. When the author has such a limited number of words and images, it is a real gift to find a word that conveys several meanings. The writing skill then is needed to make all of them work for the reader. The trick is to take a simple idea and state it simply but yet to have over- and under-tones that release other images in the readers’ minds. I am sure, that no matter how much I study Japanese, Japanese culture, and read other’s commentary on Basho’s poems, there are levels in his poems that I have not yet understood. It was one of my goals with the book to reveal the hidden levels that I know with both the choice of English words and with the notes. At one point my editor did not want to include the word-for-word translations, but I insisted because I felt that some readers, simply by reading the words not yet put into a poem, could find new connections and leaps that I might have missed. In no way is one person’s translation “the best.” I feel we need to keep trying to find the most apt English words and this is best done when many people are searching their own inner vocabularies and experiences.
RW: Can an English language haiku poet utilize these tools as well?
JR: Some want to and others do not. Persons who admire Shiki often believe they need only express the haiku in the simplest most common way. Like him they reject all word plays, double meanings and euphemisms. For some poems, and for some time, this works very well. If this is the complete bag of techniques the author has, he or she, and their readers will soon be faced with some boring poems. One of the reasons I am eager for writers to understand the many techniques Basho used, is so that they have a wide range of methods and ways of expressing their moment of inspiration.
RW: You have a great love for Matsuo Basho. Why Basho?
JR: I love the works of Basho because, of the four Japanese Masters, he was, and is, the most spiritual and noble. One of the marvels of the haiku form is how elastic it is. The form can contain and carry the rawest, most randy senryu to the highest expression of life and spirituality. During Basho’s life he wrote many haiku about his sexual life, but because of his noble up-bringing and his own spiritual study and practice, he could express the complete range of feelings filtered through his inner gates of spirituality. It was not without reason that the Shinto religious leaders, as well the Emperor, canonized Basho as a saint one hundred years after his death.
RW: How does his haiku stand above that written by others?
JR: I have a hard time thinking of Basho’s work being “above that written by others.” I guess I see haiku like geography – the literature is spread out like a land. Different places have different attributes, marvels, and beautiful scenes as do different authors. Mountains are harder to get to as are some haiku are harder to understand but they still are dirt and rock or nouns and verbs. Compared to the distances of space, even our mountains and abysses are all on one plane. There is much to learn from all the masters, and even not-yet-declared masters of haiku. I enjoy them all. I have had periods where I could only read Issa and I read and worked with his poems for several years. I am very glad that David Laneou (Robert, please correct the spelling of his name?) is translating his poems as that is opening up Issa’s work to us in a new way. Some one needs to translate all of Buson’s poems.
RW: One final question, Jane. What was your greatest challenge in the writing of Basho: The Complete Haiku?
Copyright ©Robert Wilson & Jane Reichhold 2010.