from a Conversation with Richard Gilbert


Richard Gilbert

While at Naropa University, Richard Gilbert studied with beat poets Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, Peter Orlovsky, Gary Snyder, and others, and became a Tibetan Buddhist meditator. He has performed in and produced conceptual art multidisciplinary presentations as a poet, videographer, and electric guitarist. After completing an undergraduate thesis on Japanese classical haiku in 1982, and Tibetan Buddhist seminary training in 1984, he worked as a clinical adult outpatient psychotherapist. In 1990, Gilbert completed a PhD at The Union Institute & University in Poetics and Depth Psychology. He moved to Kumamoto, Japan, in 1997, teaching at university and publishing academic articles on Japanese and English-language haiku, while designing EFL educational software. He received tenure from Kumamoto University in 2002. Gilbert is co-judge of the Kusamakura International Haiku Competition, founder and director of the Kon Nichi Haiku Translation Group at Kumamoto University, and founding associate member of The Haiku Foundation. His book The Disjunctive Dragonfly: A New Approach to English-Language Haiku, discussing some 275 haiku (Red Moon Press, 2013), was awarded The Haiku Foundation 2013 Touchstone Distinguished Book Award. Gilbert has edited and/or translated five other books relating to haiku, and constructed the gendaihaiku website, which presents subtitled video interviews with notable modern Japanese haiku poets. (website)


Note: The following is excerpted from a 26-page interview.

GREEN: What is haiku? Let’s start there. 


GILBERT: I’d like to quote a fellow named Hiroaki Sato, “A haiku is anything the author says it is.” [Green laughs] And you might think he’s saying it in a leading way, but it’s because, for one, in Japan, when you go to the daijiten, the big encyclopedic dictionary and look up haiku, there’s no definition. There’s no 5–7–5, there is no haiku is this and not that. What you see is connotation: Haiku began with Basho in the seventeenth century, and he wrote these things, and then there are other well-known haijin (-jin is “person,” meaning people who write haiku) who wrote like this. And it’s mentioned that in modern times Masaoka Shiki gave us the word “haiku,” which didn’t exist before him—it was called hokku, and the hokku was part of a linked form poem. People basically drink together. So the haiku drinking party, the kukai, is the basis of haiku in Japan, and still is today—and it’s not always drinking, anymore, but haiku come out of a collaborative, communal experience that is really fun. 


There’s a famous quote by Basho, “haiku jiyu,” which means, “haiku is for freedom.” And I’d like to explain that. In a strongly hierarchical, class-based society, which feudal Japan was—you’ve got the farmers and the samurai, and there are class-degrees of samurai families—a lot of intense structure. And it’s known that if a samurai wanted to test his sword and happened to hack down a farmer who was walking along the road, that was not a crime. That’s hierarchy, right? How interesting, then, that when you join a haiku group, the first thing that you do is create a haigo, what we would call a nom de plume or a pen name—


GREEN: For the whole group, or for yourself?


GILBERT: For yourself. And someone would often give you that name as a joke—some of the names are like “Twisted Guts,” crazy names—and you can have more than one. Shiki famously had over 100. And each one was a persona. Name change is an interesting thing, anyway, in Japanese culture. For instance, if you achieve a certain rank in a martial art or ikebana (flower arranging) you might be given a special name by your teacher. But the name and the persona is really a new self. The idea of “I am me and I am like this throughout my life” is a bit different in Asian culture compared to our own, generally. 


So this idea of haigo has a very interesting socio-political side, because if you’re a farmer you can’t talk to a samurai, unless you’re addressed by them, and then you would have to talk in a very cultivated, formal language called teinei-go. And what if you insulted them? They might hack you to bits! And even among the samurai classes there exist complex language conventions. There’s no way a group could form freely among different classes. But when you have a haigo you are that person, and there is no longer any class. It’s complete equality. And so that’s why Basho said, “haiku jiyu.” It’s one of the many intense paradoxes within Japanese culture, that within the haiku drinking party everyone’s an equal. 


Kaneko Tohta is now 94, and is practically a national treasure in Japan. He talks about growing up in the village of Chichibu, way up in the mountains north of Tokyo. His father was a doctor and built a clinic there, so he was from an elite family, but at the same time grew up in this small village, and felt very protective of village culture, and writes a lot about rural themes. He pioneered the movement called shakaisei haiku, which means haiku of social consciousness—he was one of the main leaders of this post-war late-1940s group that first asked the question, “Well, should we write haiku anymore because look what happened, the war, we couldn’t stop anything, and haiku symbolizes this traditional ‘Japaneseness’—this is not good, maybe we should just stop.” As a result of this questioning and debate, he revolutionized the genre, creating many theories about how to think about yourself and connect with your physical embodied being, and at the same time critique your culture intellectually. 

genbaku yurusu maji kani katsukatsu to gareki ayumu
never, atomic bomb never—
a crab crawls click, click
over rubble
—Kaneko Tohta 

He has many coinages of terms, and one of them that I really like is translated as “intellectual wildness.” I don’t want to get carried away with this, but I studied with the Beats at Naropa, and when you think of anti-establishment poets, you know, Gary Snyder eventually became a professor emeritus at UC Davis, and Allen Ginsberg founded the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics, and you could say that in their later lives they integrated back into their culture—in other words this idea of “anti-” became much more synthetic. Naropa remains an alternative school, and Gary Snyder has become a leading ecological activist, so it’s not as if the integration is like suddenly watching Fox News or whatever—


GREEN: Change from within, rather than change from without, right? 


GILBERT: Right, they found a place within institutional structures. And I wanted to meet the poets who were working, I didn’t want to study poetry academically. I was very confused, and I still am, and that poetic instinct, as you might call it, was strong in my life. I wanted to meet people who felt the same thing—I wanted, not to be a disciple, but to have some mentoring. So I went to Naropa. And when I went to Japan I had that same feeling—at first I was interested in the classical stuff, because I knew about that from studies with Ginsberg and Patricia Donegan, but after I got there I realized that there was this tremendous tradition that happened after WWII that had virtually never been translated into English—at least not with commentary so that you could learn about what these poets were thinking, and not just read the poems, which often translate very minimally in terms of the culture. And when I did begin meeting these poets I found they were absolutely brilliant and eccentric, with a lot to say. 


So someone like Kaneko offers what we might think of as a paradox, where he was one of the most radical and pioneering of the post-war haiku poets, and his job was that he worked for the Bank of Japan, throughout his whole career. How can these two things go together? Yagi Mikajo recently passed away—she was the first woman in Japan to graduate from a medical college and found her own ophthalmology clinic. She was a brilliant doctor, and I would call her an eco-feminist radical poet—before the term existed. She was writing these amazing, very erotic, and also what we would call ecological, haiku. But she was as well a doctor; she had a day job. So anti-establishment, in the Japanese sense, has to do with community and your mind, your intellect—it doesn’t mean you have to quit your job and form a new –ism. In fact, Kaneko said he hates –isms and is not too interested in continental “theory” philosophizing; he’s more of a rooted person, it’s more human-to-human.

mankai no mori no inbu no era kokyû
full bloom
in the forest’s genitals
respiration of gills
—Yagi Mikajo
So to finish the thought here, what is haiku—one of the lovely things that I found studying in Japan is that haiku is community. Haiku is groups getting together filling in their own poems. It’s not the lonely pilgrim finding enlightenment—that’s part of Basho’s life, but the main part is that he was this very ambitious guy who sought fame early with his first book, which had a lot of obscene poetry in it, actually. And by the way, he was also primarily gay—he was bisexual, but the great love of his life was Tokoku (also known as Mankikumaru), who was exiled, due to his criminal activity, by the Shogunate. 
GREEN: I never knew that. 
GILBERT: Scholars have known all through history, but within the institutions they’ve been shy of tarnishing the “Basho the Saint” image. There’s a recent book by Arashiyama, which in translation is Rogue Basho—he basically surrounded himself with criminals and violent people—Basho was closer to a Beat than a mendicant monk. A very complicated fellow, and a genius. 
So this idea of the haiku drinking party, or kukai, is the core, and does it relate to the international arena? Is it true that haiku is the only international genre of poetry? Free verse is not really a single genre, but haiku must have certain formal aspects that connote it as haiku. Another paradox of haiku is that these little tiny poems that seem incomplete apparently draw people together who want to talk about them. That is, haiku seem to create community. Don Baird uses the term “haiku DNA,” which I think is an interesting Western idea: There is some sense of a code, a lineage aspect that is a bit mysterious, and yet there’s something about this form that seems to overleap language and culture. Every year over 60 countries send haiku in English to our Kusamakura Haiku Competition in Kumamoto, Japan, where I live. The Balkans are very strong in haiku, France, Germany, India …
So in my role, I judge a contest, I write some theory and publish haiku—and I’m old now, I just turned 60, and didn’t start out wanting to do this; I wasn’t an academic until I got to Japan, really, but suddenly in the last few years, especially with social networking, I’ve developed new friendships. Do you know how hard it is to make a friend when you’re over 50? I mean to really connect? But by meeting others into haiku I’ve met some amazing people. So “haiku is for freedom” has a lot of resonance for me, and it’s also about community. 
GREEN: There is this sense of community that no other genre has—it’s sort of separate from mainstream poetry, but there’s a vibrancy that you can see, with these large conferences like you mentioned—
GILBERT: Yeah, the Haiku North America Conference occurs every two years, it’s international and well-attended …
GREEN: And there are no international sonnet conferences. So what do you think it is about haiku that draws people together? Is it the mystery, the brevity? 
GILBERT: That’s a question that I can’t really answer very well. Except the obvious, that there are enough people who like it and who are attracted—
GREEN: But why are they attracted? I mean, my grandmother [Gilbert laughs] who did nothing else with literature, she loved haiku. She had a subscription to Frogpond, and every time she would write me a letter she would include a haiku at the end. She didn’t even read Rattle, really. And there was a little community in her neighborhood that shared haiku. I noticed in your background that you have a PhD in Poetics and Depth Psychology, and I don’t know what that is, but it sounds fascinating—does that relate? 
GILBERT: Well, it relates to Jung, and I studied with James Hillman, who had some issues with Jungian theories and created his own field called Archetypal Psychology. And it does connect with some of his ideas about who we are as people—multiplicity in self—and that goes back to haigo, right; if Shiki had 100 personas he was really playing with the idea that you can be a horse and write a haiku.
There’s a poet, Tsubouchi Nenten, who writes a lot of funny haiku about hippopotami—he famously wrote: 
cherry blossoms fall—
you too must become
a hippo
—Tsubouchi Nenten
So when you ask, what is haiku, that’s a haiku. Senryū is a term that often means witticism or witty, but in modern haiku we’re not really making that division anymore—
ushirokara mizu no oto shite fu ga kitari
from behind
comes the sound of water
comes news of death
—Ônishi Yasuyo
If the poem has impact and has depth, it doesn’t matter if it has wit or not, it doesn’t matter if it has a human topic. In Japan it’s a little different, because there’s a long tradition of senryū that goes back hundreds of years, and the definition is more clear because senryū poets don’t treat season words (kigo) as special, they just treat them as words, ordinary language. But in English, from a Japanese point of view there is no haiku, because there’s no kigo, no dictionaries of season words that go back for centuries, which is really the vertical depth that makes kigo powerful. 
GREEN: Explain that, what are kigo?
GILBERT: Unfortunately for us in translation, the literal translation is “season word.” There’s a literal side, a realism, like for example, “spring moon”—and “moon” itself, by the way, is a kigo; it would always be the moon-viewing moon of the autumn harvest. Kigo are strange, in that they’re not based on naturalism or realism, and many are ancient, so they’re coming from a sense of human imagination and culture that isn’t confined by scientific understanding. So when we say “moon” it could be any season, but in Japanese, when we say “moon” in haiku, it’s always the moon-viewing moon, and people are there in a group, looking at the moon. Often there’s also a sense of impermanent beauty, mono no aware; it’s beauty in its passing, traditionally related with the cherry blossoms falling like snow, or a beautiful woman in her prime, you would say, also feeling the passing of that beauty—of all phenomena. But if a moon is not just a moon, if a moon is actually a moon related to the environment, people going out on a night in the early autumn to view the moon and write poetry, and to maybe drink together, and have a quietly festive time sharing a sense of heart—that’s all included in the kigo. So that’s one level, that kigo are environments, it’s not just the literal moon. In Japan there are some fourteen kinds of cicada, and they all have different periods of time that they appear. So if I say higurashi, which is a kind of cicada that I hear where I live, they come in late summer, as kigo it carries this sense of returning to school, the sense of summer ending, and evokes a feeling of maybe kids playing jump rope in the neighborhood in their free time:
nawatobi no wa ni higurashi ga haittekuru
into the jump rope’s spinning ring a cicada jumps in
—Hoshinaga Fumio

GILBERT: So kigo are really whole environments, and that’s the first thing that we miss in English. Here’s another contemporary use of kigo by Uda Kiyoko—she’s the president of the Modern Haiku Association of Japan:
mugi yo shi wa ki isshoku to omoikomu
realizing death as one color
Here, the summer kigo is wheat—eternity, a paradox, the singular “gold” of life and death expressed in just a few words, the wheatfield of an image. 
Just to mention, kigo in modern haiku is not mandatory—I had a group of students research this a few years ago, we looked through several hundred modern haiku and found that about 70% contained kigo
Another aspect of kigo is a little stranger still, there’s a vertical dimension that really makes kigo powerful, which is that, when you open a saijiki, which is this compendium of kigo—this is a highly redacted, edited compendium, and there might be many hundreds, even thousands of kigo in it. And for each kigo, there are poems using that kigo, or that season word, that go back in time. Let’s say I look up “moon,” which is autumn—I might be able to find, in that case, it’s such a popular and important kigo, I could find hundreds of poems going back through time, layers and layers of history. So what you get, as a haiku professional, is that you look in the saijiki for the kigo, and you really have to understand all those other poets, not just the poem, but who were they, when did they live, what was their era, how does the poem relate to their situation? If they said something like, “The moon tonight/ another cicada calls”—but then you find out that “another cicada” really refers to their patron. So there are often hidden messages, symbolic and literary references, if you study more deeply. 
I think of it like a geology, imagine the Grand Canyon: You’re going back through strata of eras, and all of these poets that use that same season word are in a sense developing a multi-generational dialogue. As you go through time those later poets were aware of the earlier poets, and so it keeps going like that, to this day. And I asked some of the poets I was interviewing, “You’ve written plays and essays, modern poetry, why do you want to be known as a haiku poet, why restrict yourself?” My friend and colleague Hoshinaga Fumio said, “One word can create an environment; one word can create this sense of history and lineage. So why reject it?” But at the same time, I’ll give you another example of a poem of his: 
athlete’s foot itches
still can’t become
“Athlete’s foot” is a kigo. We perhaps wouldn’t think of that as a season word, but there are all sorts of kigo—that’s summer, of course. But with “athlete’s foot” he’s deformed that kigo into something much more modern, as Uda also has done, with “wheat,” and the content is really socially conscious and contemporary. He has another that I like:
spring tree
I climb until I can
see the war
So “spring tree” is a kigo, and by using it, he echoes back to all the haiku before, but it was also a warlord culture, and he was a child of war. He’s 77 now, and Hoshinaga describes how he was a nationalist child until the war ended and he realized he’d been lied to his whole life. There is this generation that are now in their 70s, who were children during the war, who became these, I would say, radicalized post-war gendaijin—meaning modern, contemporary writers—who really didn’t believe anything. If you’ve studied about the fire-bombing of Japan, there are historians who say this was a crime against humanity, fire-bombing civilian cities—the houses were all made of wood, so they just burned. Kumamoto, where I live, was 90% burned to the ground, I think. There are photographs of just few little concrete ruins sticking up. 
Kigo in English, then—Gary Snyder, in a recent talk said something that surprised me, he said that haiku, the term, should be reserved for only the Japanese genre, and that what we’re doing in English is not haiku, it’s a short poem that has certain rules. And you can really make that case, on a scholarly level. I do, though, disagree with Snyder on this point about terminology.
GREEN: Is there an analogous way that English could be used, maybe through etymologies …?
GILBERT: There really isn’t—there are people who have tried to create season-word dictionaries, William Higginson has a book, Haiku Seasons, that does that, but no one uses it. Because this is not coming from a tradition in which you can just make it up, in a scientific world. It’s not naturalism; it’s not realism. 
Kaneko Tohta wrote the introduction to the Modern Haiku Association Saijiki (gendaihaikukyokai saijiki), it took them like fifteen years to produce it, and the fifth volume is muki, that is “no-kigo kigo”—which is a great paradox. There are a lot of things you can’t have as kigo, like a dog. Things and beings that are close to us. Sparrows in Japan live in the eaves of the houses and are with us through all the seasons, so they can’t be kigo. So that’s one solution, this muki haiku, no-kigo, yet-kigo haiku. When you get into this topic, though, when you get into the modern era of Japanese haiku, what you start to find out, it’s a lot like English-language haiku. There’s an expansion of the kigo concept, and also a free verse haiku style that’s not 5–7–5; they’re experimenting. 
And by the way, Japanese 5–7–5 has nothing to do with syllables, in any way. Linguistically, these languages, English and Japanese, do not meet at all on the level of the syllable; they meet on the level of the metrical phrase. So if I say, “spring tree/ I climb until I can/ see the war,” you can feel the three in it, right? Doesn’t it feel like short-long-short? In English I can pause, but in Japanese you can’t. Japanese is a sound-syllable-timed language, called moraic language. In English I can use our accentual-syllabic language to stretch and pull and shorten and lengthen in ways that are really interesting. Like I composed this haiku:
as an and you and you and you alone in the sea
Here I’m using a repetitional language feature of English to replicate the feeling of bobbing up and down in the sea, well to me—but it’s also this sense of how you come back to self-awareness and how it disappears, so it’s this feeling of coming into yourself and losing it. I don’t want to interpret my own work too much, but you might call it Language poetry, or playing with language in a way. 
Here’s a poem by John Stevenson, a newer haiku:
pretty sure my red is your red
Is that a haiku? Or is it just sort of a cool strange thing? Where is the short-long-short? Now we’re getting back into the question of what is a haiku. In the modern tradition in Japan there’s an awful lot of flexibility. And probably a modern Japanese poet, if we translated that into Japanese, would say, “Yeah, of course, that’s haiku,” and they’d see it. So then instead of saying what is the limit of haiku, let’s say what makes a haiku a haiku. The key feature in language—this has to do with reader consciousness—is the same in Japanese as in English. In Japan the word is kire, which means “cutting” or “to cut.” What this means is that the haiku has to be cut in space and time in some way. This sense of cutting can be indicated by a mark, an actual grammatical mark in Japanese, and it has an emotional charge. In English this has commonly been translated as a dash, or a colon, semi-colon, sometimes ellipsis, but you can also just apply lineation. 
All these methods mentioned have a sense of cutting, but I want to get a little more specific. I want to take the most famous haiku, from Basho:
old pond—
frog jumps in
the sound of water
One thing is, historically, we know how that poem was created, because one of his main disciples, Kyorai, wrote it down.
GREEN: Oh really?
GILBERT: Basically, the guys were drinking in the Basho-an, which is the Basho hut, and they’re drinking sake, which was a nice thing to do, and it was kukai, the haiku drinking party—not a wild party, but you sip sake, and hang out, and collaboratively create poems. So a lot of times haiku—or hokku, at the time—were part of a collaborative poem called haikai no renga. They had certain kinds of rules of how you’d link the stanzas; they had the kigo at the beginning stanza, which the master, in this case Basho, would have created. And after that they link together, and it’s very playful. Sometimes it’s really jokey, and even obscene, and sometimes it’s more serious. And Basho is known as combining the more humorous style with this very deep level of insight and some would say enlightenment or depth of humanity. 
GREEN: Would these be generated quickly and spontaneously, going around the room, or would it be slow and contemplative? 
GILBERT: I think that it was whatever the mood was at the time; I think it’s a very human thing. I think it’s not very different than who we are in some way. There’s no TV; you can’t check your iPhone or whatever. There’s not a lot of distraction when you’re sitting in this little hut, and this is what you do if you have the time for it. And like I said, you have a haigo, so everyone has a pen name. By the way, Basho means “banana tree”—someone gave him a banana tree, and he planted it next to his hut, and that’s how he got the name. 
So there they are in the Basho hut, and as they’re drinking, sipping from their small cups, maybe someone’s serving them a little food, and they’re composing and talking, and as they’re doing it, occasionally there’s a sound outside. Maybe there’s a stream somewhere not so far away. And the frog—Allen Ginsberg famously translated that poem’s last line as “Kerplunk!” with an exclamation point. I really related to that, growing up in Connecticut; the wetlands of Connecticut have bullfrogs and they do kerplunk! And Allen’s from New Jersey and they kerplunk there, but in Japan they don’t kerplunk. And the reason why goes back to the kigo; the frog is a kigo, and there are poetic frogs and non-poetic frogs. It’s not about naturalism, right? So what are poetic frogs? Well, they’re the size of your thumbnail and they’re really cute, with big eyes, and they sing; they’re like peepers. Tiny frogs, sometimes you see them in the yard in the late spring or early summer, and those are the singing frogs of Japan. 
This means that the sound of the frog was heard from inside the hut of Basho, occasionally, as they were drinking—and you can’t tell plural, so either a frog or frogs—were making a tiny sound. And we know from the historical record, Basho gave the last part of the haiku first, “frog jumps-in the sound of water.” He did the 7–5, but the first 5– was missing. One of his friends said yamabuki ya, which is a mountain flower—and this would have been a radical thing to say, for reasons we won’t get into, but this would have been the anti-establishment move, to mention this flower with the frogs; it was against the traditions of renga at the time. It was kind of a cool idea, but it would have been like, “Yeah, take that aristocratic tradition!” [Green laughs] We’d have to imagine that a mention of a flower was a radical act, but it was. And Basho rejected that after a while, and finally, after some discussion, he came up with furuike ya, “old pond,” with that cut, the “ya.” 
What’s all this mean, why is this important? Well, it’s important because we can look to Basho as the originator of the depth of the tradition, and we know that the poem was his groundbreaking, signature poem, but what we tend to think is it’s a poem of realism. It’s not a poem of realism. We think it’s this Zen-like moment of awake mind—well, not really. It’s not really like that. And by the way, in Japan, too, there were people who went hunting for the pond. Was it his patron’s pond, where were they, there has to be an old pond somewhere? Over some 300 years of searching they never found it. Hasegawa Kai recently wrote a book called Did the Frog Jump into the Old Pond? It’s a 320-page book, and the short answer is, no. The frog did not jump into the old pond. How could he say that, after 320 pages? The poem says the frog jumped in—any rational person would have to disagree. 
So he must have some really tight logic on it—and he does. What makes this not a haiku of realism, what makes it distinctive, why this poem caused a revolution in creating haiku as a high art—meaning an art that wasn’t just a way of playing with language in a pleasurable and witty way, but actually made it into something that could deepen us or create a contemplation—has to do with the kire, the cutting. It has to do with “ya.” When we say, “cut in time and space,” it is completely cut. So when there’s a cut, or a “ya” in this case, meaning the keriji (cutting word): It creates these two broken parts that don’t go together. So what “old pond” has to do with “jumped into the sound of water” is completely open to question. It’s like there’s this old pond, and then there’s a black hole, a singularity, and then a frog jumps into sound of water. So in the formal structure of a haiku, in Basho’s idea, there’s no connection—but then at the same time, even though there’s no connection, the reader has to forge coherence out of these non-connected fragments. How do you do that? How do you put it together? The answer is called toriawase—the haiku is existing on two levels of reality. If I put it into prose: “Hearing occasionally the sound of frogs jumping in water, an old pond arises in mind.” The old pond couldn’t be found because it doesn’t exist: There is no pond. 
So the sense of the haiku cosmos is this: The use of disjunction is a technical feature of haiku, and is the key feature of why it’s not an epithet, and why this famous haiku is not realism, but it’s also why Basho named his school shofū, which means “eye-opening.” It’s the eye-opening school. I think this got carried way too far with Zen. Zen Buddhism took his haiku and said there were stages of enlightenment, but that’s not part of the haiku tradition at all. Aitken Roshi wrote A Zen Wave, which I think is sadly a very misleading book, in terms of the central tradition of haiku in Japan. Zen ideas are not very much a part of the literary tradition of haiku, that I can find. It’s just not central to the discussion. There is a tradition of using haiku in Zen, in Rinzai koan practice, and they’re used in a very specialized and specific way, and Aitken Roshi in his book was referring to that method, but he seems uninformed as to the main tradition of haiku. 
That’s kind of a side-light, although it’s interesting in terms of Western perceptions. R.H. Blyth was a British expat who loved Japan, was very well-read and very “modern” in his era—he ends up in Japan, ironically in a POW camp, and his library was bombed and burned. But the POW camp was a good place for him to work on his first book of haiku, because there were a lot of Japanese people there, too, for various reasons. And his first book, Haiku Vol. 1: Eastern Culture, came out in 1947. But what Blyth did was mistranslate the tradition—in a very interesting way, in a very impassioned Zen Buddhist way, and so that’s why we tend to associate this idea of haiku as having a “haiku moment” and that they should be spontaneous. A lot of that is just coming from Blyth, and he had a very interesting, idiosyncratic understanding of Buddhism that was very beautiful, and he’s a very good writer, and there are many people who are in Japanese studies to this day who read Blyth when they were younger and just wanted to go to Japan. So on the one hand he is quite powerful and passionate, and on the other hand, if you ask people in Japan studies, they’ll just say, I have quotes, “Oh, if only those books could be removed from the library.” In his translations, there are some things he’s really not understanding in the social context—many of his interpretations were not Japanese interpretations; they were his ideas. 
But that’s what comes down to us, so we’re getting to an interesting discussion: What happens when one cultural tradition plops into modern poetry? In Japan they have kigo and they go back and there are some ancient ones into China, and there are all these sajiki, these collections, and then it pops into our lives as Ezra Pound, creating arguably the first really modern poem, “In a Station of the Metro.” That poem is these days largely considered to be a decent, if unusual, haiku. And he describes how he came to it, you know, first he started with this 30-line thing, and then he cut it to 50 words, and then 14. He talks about how concision becomes fragment, and he talks about this cut. It’s hard to say whether he innovated here, because he had a Japanese friend who spoke English and gave him some haiku ideas; he was weirdly mistranslating Japanese and Chinese in his own way, on purpose. But he’s a great innovator, and he’s looking for this idea of modernity. So as a result, this idea of disjunction, of very strong cutting, has come to us as an Imagist fundamental of modern poetry. 
The idea of cutting in haiku gets more nuanced than the idea of a mark or of a sound. And this is called ma. And this gets more into what I’m interested in, which is reader phenomenology. If haiku are incomplete and fragmentary and broken within their very being, their DNA, let’s say, that’s just part of what makes a haiku different than a tanka, or different than any modern poem. It has to have a very strong experience of cutting. Japanese has these cutting words, these kireji—ya, kana, kire, etc., but Basho himself said, “When you use words as kireji, every word becomes kireji. When you do not use words as kireji, there are no words which are kireji … From this point, grasp the very depth of the nature of kireji on your own.” He’s talking about reader phenomenology. He’s saying that both as an author in your intention and as a reader in your experience, there are some really interesting things that can happen between the text itself and our experience. We can have author intention to create an experience in the reader, and yet it also takes a skilled reader to experience that intention. If we have a cut like “a frog jumps into water sound,” that’s kind of strange—it’s not a cut like ya, a cutting word, which would be really strong, but it’s merging together, by forcing together the verbal part and the object. This is an irruptive experience; it’s not a strong cut and yet it creates this feeling of what I call psychological in-betweenness. This is also disjunctive. There’s a word for this in Japanese, ma, which is very hard to translate, but it really means a psychological “in-betweenness” caused by disjunction. 


Note: For citations to haiku included in this conversation, and links to further reading, visit Richard Gilbert’s page on our website.

from Rattle #47, Spring 2015
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