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Robert Hass on Haiku

[The following excerpts from Hass’s introduction to The Essential Haiku contain remarks that seem relevant to "A Story About the Body." As more than one critic has observed, Hass's ongoing study of Japanese poetry is apparent in the Human Wishes prose poems. These excerpts help elucidate how "A Story About the Body" not only conveys the condensed and detached feeling of Haiku, but also exhibits many of the Japanese form's conventions.]

. . . the spirit of haiku required that the language be kept plain. "’The function of Haik[u],’" Basho once said, "’is to rectify common speech.’" It also demanded accurate and original images, drawn mostly from common life . . .

The insistence on time and place was crucial for writers of haiku. The seasonal reference was called a kigo and a haiku was thought to be incomplete without it . . . The practice was sufficiently codified and there was even a rule that the seasonal reference should always appear either in the first or third unit of the three phrase poem . . .

If the first level of a haiku is its location in nature, itse second is almost always some implicit Buddhist reflection on nature . . . At the core of Buddhist metaphysics are three ideas about natural things: that they are transient; that they are contingent; and that they suffer . . .

They [Basho’s, Busson’s, and Issa’s Haiku] have a quality of actuality, of the moment seized on and rendered purely, and because of this they seem to elude being either traditional images of nature or ideas about it. The formal reason for this mysteriousness is that they don’t usually generalize their images . . . what was left was the irreducible mysteriousness of the images themselves. The French writer Roland Barthes speaks of this . . . as the haiku’s "breach of meaning" and is able to make a post-modern case for them as deconstructions and subverters of cultural certainties. This case can be made, but the silence of haiku, its wordlessness, also has its roots in Buddhist culture, especially in Zen . . .

Zen provided people training in how to stand aside and leave the meaning-making activity of the ego to its own devices. Not resisting it, but seeing it as another phenomenal thing . . .

Perhaps the best way [to read Haiku] . . . after one has familiarized oneself with the symbolism of the seasons and the Japanese habit of mind, is to read them as plainly and literally as possible.

from Robert Hass, "Introduction," The Essential Haiku: Versions of Basho, Buson, and Issa (New York: Ecco, 1994) xii-xvi. Copyright 1994 by Robert Hass.

Selected haikus translated by Robert Hass

Climb Mount Fuji,
O snail,
but slowly, slowly.

Matsuo Basho

Even in Kyoto --
hearing the cuckoo's cry --
I long for Kyoto.


Napped half the day;
no one
punished me!

Kobaayashi Issa

Mosquito at my ear--
does it think
I'm deaf?


New Year's morning--
everything is in blossom!
I feel about average.


Even with insects--
some can sing,
some can't.


For you fleas too
the nights must be long,
they must be lonely.


The snow is melting
and the village is flooded
with children.


Don't kill that fly!
Look--it's wringing its hands,
wringing its feet.


Don't worry, spiders,
I keep house


Bright autumn moon;
pond snails crying
in the saucepan.


"Climb Mount Fuji" and "Even in Kyoto --," by Matsuo Basho; "Napped half the day;" "Mosquito at my ear--," "New Year's morning --," "Even with insects--," "For you fleas too," "The snow is melting," "Don't kill that fly!," "Don't worry, spiders," and "Hell:" by Kobayashi Issa from The Essential Haiku, edited and translated by Robert Hass. Copyright 1994 by Robert Hass. First published by The Ecco Press in 1994. Online Source

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