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November 2007 Issue VII:4

The Essential Hass

A Short Interview with Robert Hass


RR: How and to what extent has haiku influenced your poetic thought and poetry?

RH: I don't think anybody can ever answer this question— either the how or the how much— very accurately. One would have to have a great deal of detachment about one's own work. How? The power of the image, the power of simplicity, the power of discrimination, the implicit idea that anything can contain everything, something about negotiating nothingness in the sense of not ultimately having a place to stand (or sit) in our observation of the world. How much? I don't know. A lot. At least it seems to me that my debt is great to the poets I've most studied, Basho, Buson, Issa.

RR: What is it about haiku as a genre that is powerful, and also distinct from other poetic genres, to your mind?

RH: I've written a long essay about this, "Images." It's in my book 20th Century Pleasures. [*See Excerpt below.]

RR: Do you think that in the future a poet writing haiku in English (as their main poetic form) can achieve notability, within the wider arena of literary culture (why or why not)?

RH: I don't see why not. Though I am inclined to think that short poems, even short poems with a seasonal reference and a 5-7-5 syllabic structure, written in English can't be, strictly speaking, haiku. Or to say it another way, the haiku is still acclimatizing itself, in this country, to the cultures of American poetry. When Basho began to write, there was already an eight hundred to a thousand year tradition of poetry and art in Japan to give resonance to the brief seasonal words on which haiku depends and a pre-industrial culture that involved quite close observation of the seasons and a set of religious and cultural rituals embedded in those seasons. This condition doesn't obtain in English-speaking North America (or Spanish-speaking South America, where there have also been many experiments with the haiku form.) I expect something unexpected will eventually evolve from our admiration for and attempts to translate the practice of the short Japanese poem.

RR: As with poetry in general, the sheer volume of publication is high, yet quality is too often mediocre. Would you have any suggestions for the future, for editors and poets?

RH: Yes, high standards for oneself, generosity toward others, except for editors who need to practice high standards and courtesy.

RR: Haiku are generally taken to be a poetics of nature, and often take aspects of the natural world as a focus or topic; could you discuss the question of haiku and nature, poetry and nature, in light of recent revelations of global warming and as Bill McKibben put it, "the end of nature?"

RH: One of the arguments for the cultivation of haiku, I suppose, is that attention to nature has become a moral imperative. McKibben is good on this subject and the great text is still the essay, "The Land Ethic" in Aldo Leopold's Sand Country Almanac. That book, especially the essays "Thinking Like a Mountain" and "Good Oak" and "Song of the Gavilan" are also useful texts for thinking about how to naturalize an imagination of nature in North American poetry. In so much of poetry and thinking about poetry right now, there is a good deal of appropriate skepticism about the assumptions behind realism as a literary mode and therefore about the whole question of what we do when we think to represent nature. It might be useful to let this tradition— and the range of anti-realist practices from surrealism to language poetics— enter the practice of haiku, if only to take away the sort of easy wow! poem that tends to be the first stage of our attempts to appropriate the form. Allen Ginsberg's notion that the blues lyric is the American version of haiku might also be helpful in this connection. See his effort at what he called "American sentences."

[editor's emphasis]


*Excerpt from "Images."

"The summer had been crowded with people, visitors, friends, children, their friends; even backpacking, I had gone with groups. The week had been a large gathering of grandparents, parents, brothers and sisters, in-laws, children. The communal rhythms of family life have their deep satisfactions— even the logistics of them. The true haiku of my days just then would have gone something like this: "Bill and Leif want to climb Mount Tallac and Karen and I are taking the Volkswagen to go fishing, so can you and Mom walk to the beach now and pick up Luke at Peter's later in Gradma's car?" A means to a means to a means, Ranall Jarrell called it. It was beginning to be too much of a good thing, and trading away solitude for those other pleasures for so long had begun to eat me up. I suppose I was also feeling, paradoxically, the submerged melancholy of the end of summer. If I had written about what I had seen, if we had, as the Japanese did, a set of conventions that could carry all that weight, I think I would probably have gotten it wrong by identifying too closely with the animal:

black ants, and the little dead marmot's
    half-closed eye.

This image, like others, seemed partial to me walking down the mountain, glimpses of life, but not the heart of it. At Susy Lake, however, I felt as if I had been granted a death vision: white trees, white grass, white leaves; the snow patches and flowering currant suddenly dark beside them; and everything there, rock, tree, cloud, sky, shuddering and blazing. It was a sense, past speaking, past these words, that everything, all of the earth and time itself, was alive and burning."

-Robert Hass
(Twentieth Century Pleasures: Prose on Poetry; "Images"; The Ecco Press. Hopewell, NJ. 1984. pp 282-3)

Copyright © 2004-2007 by Roadrunner Haiku Journal. All rights revert to the authors upon publication.