Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Haiku, Personification, Zen, Translation, Now and Zen

More than one English-language haijin (someone who makes haiku) has felt themselves up against the wall. The wall is the Western belief that anthropomorphism and personification are fallacies, are fiction, are no-nos in poetry. They use Western literary-critical terms like pathetic fallacy (now there's a term designed to be a negative from the get-go) or Eliot's objective correlative. They talk about subject-object relations, which is a Western bias built on millennia of assumptions about the nature of reality: that the "I" of the ego is separate from the "thou" of the world, that we are separate from nature, that we are in fact as Descartes claimed, ghosts in the shell. But the best haiku are not snapshots, not metaphors, not bridges between the disembodied mind of the poet's language and hte untouchable putridness of the natural world—the best haiku are deeply embedded participations. They are unifications, not bridges; participations, not observations; whole embodied experiences, not words about disembodied theoretical experiences. If you don't fall into the poem, into the world of the poem, if you don't feel it in your own body, the poem is not finished. Some would still call that sort of embodiment a personification or pathetic fallacy, of course: how we love to cling to our postural habits and defenses.

I think this is a very Western-psychological way of looking at the topic, which can be useful, but has some limitations, and can become a wrong turn, if one is not careful. Critical terms such as pathetic fallacy don't really have exact correlations in Japanese thinking about poetics.

Rather than personification, I would say identification-with: the idea of becoming-one-with. I think we get closest to this when we talk about participation. Not subject/object relation, but as Harry Hay put it, subject-subject consciousness. No separation: not-other. Nothing, no-thing.

It seems to me that the best haiku have this sense of immediacy, of identification, of lack of separation in all ways. So, no participation, no subject/object, but oneness/mu. This is the very aspect of Zen that was infused into haiku by Basho and his students, and also by Issa. It's a state-of-being condition, not strictly a literary-critical philosophy, which could of course be included in state-of-being. (This is also in the area where Zen converges with Western mysticism, in realms of Unity. Think of Yeats: like a long-legged fly, his mind moves upon silence.)

The criticism has been made that R.H. Blyth, one of the earliest translators and introducers of haiku into English, was rather "too Zen" in his thinking, thus misleading a whole generation or two of American haijin, notably the Beats. The criticism has also been made that Basho was only a fake monk, and admitted so. Add to that, were they daily practices, there would be no haiku, because words (and concepts) are a form of separation that are to be dropped away when one studies true Zen; the assumption is that one would be so fully enlightened that the need for poetry about experience would cease.

Fake monk or no, which was actually a common trope in the shogunate era in Japan—safer to travel dressed as a monk than as a merchant, for example—Basho and Issa were both recognized as having captured the spirit of Zen by later Zen masters and teachers. The spirit of haiku, obviously, is what I am going after, and is what I think trumps "literary correctness," or any perceived lack of Zen credentials on the part of haijin. So, I think the issue of Basho's Zen credentials is not as important as the truth that he did embody Zen in his writings, at least some of the time, and has been recognized as doing so. Tie in the influence of Zen on calligraphy, an art not at all separate from literature in Eastern culture—nor is painting, for that matter—and the both/and oneness of literary/artistic/Zen production starts to come into focus. No separation there, either.

I don't agree that one who is enlightened would no longer use words, because that throws out the whole tradition of teaching, darshan, and training. (This gets at the difference between the Theravada-style arhat who attains personal enlightenment and checks out, in contrast to the Mahayana-style forms of Buddhism, including Zen, that include helping others along the path of enlightenment, as well as oneself. The Vow of the Bodhisattva, while not so integral to Zen as it is to other branches of Buddhism, is not repudiated.) Demanding that the enlightened remain silent would also throw out the Zen literary traditions of the enlightenment poem and the death-poem, both of which are doctrinally accepted, and have produced some lovely insights into Buddhist philosophy. (My all-time favorite Zen enlightenment poem: "Now that I'm enlightened, I'm just as miserable as ever.")

The argument for it being easier-said-than-done has merit only to a point, because in Zen, literary work, like everthing else, is incorporated into daily practice. The point of practice is to exist in the Zen mind, beginner's mind, continuously, throughout the day, doing ordinary things ("chop wood, carry water"), not only while doing formal zazen or sesshin, which are "specialized" activities that even some Zen masters say are "nothing special." So, easier-said-than-done is simply part of the practice, until, like everything else, it becomes infused with Zen, and is as easily said as done.

Literary practice was incorporated into Zen, of course, which is why we have any tradition of Zen-literature at all. No separation here, either: it's all Zen practice. Thus, we have lots of Zen in haiku, and haiku in Zen. Lay monks, fake monks, or no, many of the greatest of Japanese literary treasures fit under this umbrella. (I'm thinking or Ryokan and Ikkyu as well as Basho and Issa, all of whom donned monk's robes at various times, for whatever reasons.) So, the fake-monk argument doesn't really mean they never had any genuine enlightenment experiences. That's only a matter of lineage-recognized credentials, not the actual fact of lay practice.

The problem with literary analysis of Eastern literature by Western critics is that sometimes there are underlying assumptions about the nature of reality (which can be understood across cultures; I don't buy the solipsistic argument for untranslatability) that are not the same in both cultures. I think you can translate when you are aware and respectful of the cultural context, the underlying assumptions about reality that the poet's culture carries. I think it's possible to understand each other, although it might take insight, time, and work, to do so.

This is why I prefer Sam Hamill, Stephen Mitchell, and one or two others as translators of Basho, Issa, Buson, Ryokan, et al.: they are actual Zen practitioners: they "get it," because they have had the experience of doing Zen, which many academic/linguistic translators have not. The translation can get even deeper when the reader has the same experience, and can embody the poem in herself/himself. Another poet worth mentioning in this context is Jim Harrison, who has done "versions" of Zen poets, although he himself is not a Japanese scholar, but rather a long-sitting Zen practitioner.

And here we get into the age-old argument about translation itself: do we translate the exact letter of the poem, or the spirit of the poem, allowing it to breathe in the new language? I personally feel some of the more "precise" academic translators often miss the spirit of the haiku when they translate them, because they get bogged down in the trees, and miss the forest entirely. A comparison of several translations of Basho's famous frog haiku can be found here, along with a commentary. This comparison is revealing, as is the commentary, which is by Robert Aitken Roshi, a Zen master and poet in his own right.

I don't really have a problem with R.H. Blyth, either, because even though he can occasionally be a little self-consciously "literary" in his word-choices, he does get at the spirit of the thing. I never understood the criticism of Blyth being "too Zen" about haiku, as, after all, how can anyone be "too Zen" about haiku? It's sort of the whole point of it, ennit?

The point of identification, obviously, is for the reader to complete the haiku experience by embodying it, by being the cricket or apple blossom, rather than just reading about it and keeping that mental (illusory) separation. No separation between "subject" and "object" is what Harry Hay means by subject-subject consciousness, in part. Again, this has deep parallels in the Western mystical tradition, too.

I do not mean to imply that a translator must be a certified Language Scholar, or otherwise a native speaker of both languages, or some other form of language expert. I question that assumption. I think that is perhaps a bias from academic life that isn't real-world. As an former escaped academic myself (and also as someone who spent much of his childhood in Asia; I am familiar with Japanese and its complicated history of writing, too, though I am hardly a scholar), I recognize it when I see it; and I have to say, leaving academia myself, showed me definitively that the wide, wide world contains many more things then are ever dreamt of in ivory-tower seminars. Academia is about the life of the mind; the rest of the world includes the life of the senses, body, and soul.

So, certified language scholar or native speaker of both languages? Not only is that not necessary, but if that were the principle and only criterion for translation, then hardly anything would ever get translated—and we would all be literarily and culturally poorer for it.

Again, I find limited those many translators that get stuck in the trees—the linguistic details—and completely miss the forest—the experience of the poem, the experience that the poem conveys. Some languages are easier to translate between, that is not in dispute. But I can think of several examples where the translator was not fluent, or a language scholar, yet the translations are successful, acknowledged as such, and highly respected.

Coleman Barks' versions of Rumi, for example: Barks knows little or no Persian; he relies on a literal translation of the original, originally by language scholars such as John Moyne, who is credited as co-translator early on in Barks' books of Rumi translations, then Barks works to get his versions in English. I have heard native Arabic-speaking Sufi scholars opine that Barks has indeed achieved a successful translation of Rumi into English. So, perhaps he's the exception, but it's obviously not an impossibility.

In my own experience, the academic disciplines least likely to get hung up in the box-like mindset that ignores the forest for the trees are those like anthropology, folklore, and ethnomusicology, all of which I majored in, in grad school; I admit, that could be a bias based on my own experience. The other academic disciplines least likely to get mired in literalism were the performing arts and other creative arts; musicians, artists, dancers, etc., have managed to communicate both intent and content successfully for generations, without necessarily being able to converse eloquently over tea. There are, in other words, other levels of communication than literal speech: and this is where the spirit of the poem can get through, even if the translator is not a fluent speaker of both languages. Wabi-sabi is a philosophical aesthetic that arguably reached its deepest development in the Zen-influenced Japanese arts; but it's an idea that does turn up elsewhere, too.

As for being accused of being a cultural constructivist, I have always responded to essentialist arguments about literature with laughter. I have lived a significant percentage of my life in other cultures, on multiple continents, and speak more than one, or even three, languages. My experience has taught me two things I believe very strongly: 1. The human experience is the same everywhere, no matter how we talk about it; we all have more in common with each other than not. 2. The differences, that wonderful diversity, are what brings the spice to life, and are to be treasured. I firmly believe that different languages literally create different mindsets, ways of framing the universe, ways of looking at the universe; and that every language has one or two experiences that can be expressed in that language that are completely non-translatable.

So, I agree that knowing the language helps one attain the world-view of the poet to be translated. But I would never exclude the possibility that a poet-translator could, through intuition, common (poetic) worldview, or lucky insight, get the spirit of the poem correctly without being a language scholar. It seems to have happened often enough that one must include the possibility.

There continue to be arguments that haiku and its related forms are too often mistaken as Zen-related. I think this remains a Western bias, perhaps an attempt in the Western post-modern(ist) era to divorce form from content, inspiration from form. I think the argument misses the point, if it is an argument that prefers to only discuss the secular, non-spiritual aspects of poetic form. Such arguments are equally absurd when discussing Rumi, or other mystical poets, for example.

Zen is a state of being, not a list of ingredients. It's a mindset that you inhabit, not a checklist of points made that fit an established canon. That sort of checklist literary criticism is wrong-headed at all times. All the Zen masters say it comes back to experience, and being Zen rather than talking about it, or even making poems about it. How can anything be Zen-related too often? That's like saying there's too much air in here for us to be breathing properly.

Maybe what these critics are trying to say is that too much emphasis can be given to Zen as an influence on literature, on the literary practice of writing haiku, and on the arts in general. I can see where someone might want to emphasize the literary sources over the spiritual, and talk about gatherings of poets rather than gatherings of monks; but then, I turn to the idea of "ordinary people and monks and mystics" (cf. Marsha Sinetar's book of that name) and ask: What's the difference? And who cares? Why make it into a big deal, when life is all of a unified piece? I sometimes view these anti-Zen literary arguments as coming from the same motivations of arguments against any and all forms of superstition, where the root of the argument is the implicit viewpoint that only concrete, physical reality matters, and things of soul and spirit are too trivial to be mentioned. Obviously, I disagree with that viewpoint. (Nor am I alone. The whole of Traditional Chinese Medicine is based on an ecological view of the human body's energetic and physical systems, in contrast to the mechanistic paradigm presented in Western allopathic medicine. Is it a coincidence that many anti-Zen literary arguments seemed touched by the brush of Western mechanistic philosophy?)

I come back to Zen not because I think haiku is only and ever a Zen poetic form, although for many haiku writers it seems that it was, but because knowing about Zen can help one understand the Japanese arts in general, because there was a huge influence from Zen on all the arts in Japan, literature included. The question of impermanence and transience is part of all this, including wabi-sabi, the seasonal-referent words (kigo) in tanka and haiku indicated by images from nature, and the act of creation.

As an artist, writer, and musician, I use every bit of beginner's-mind training that I have absorbed over the last 30 plus years—whether it came directly from Zen, or from Sufism, or from my Native American teachers about sweatlodge and shamanism—to clear and quiet my mind, to access my inner self, open my heart, and set forth: before I ever set down a word, pick up my musical instruments, or take a photo, I do this sort of self-emptying meditation practice. I don't really care what people call it, or where they think it comes from; there are many rivers.

I know from experience that there are other poets and writers who work at their writing in similar ways to mine, although we appear to be a minority surrounded by rather more intellect-based poets; that's an ongoing clash of viewpoints that we could get into, or not. The proof of the process is in the quality of the poem as it stands—which of course means that many processes are valid, because many different kinds of poets write many different kinds of poems of similarly high quality. There are many rivers.

I don't think we can get away from talking about Zen in haiku simply because we can't get away from talking about the images of impermanence that appear in many, many haiku. Chicken or egg? Does it matter? Doubt it.

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Blogger Jim Murdoch said...

I won't say I didn't find this interesting, because I did, but I had a bit of trouble keeping up with all the names a lot of which I've run across in my recent investigations into micropoetry but, at the end of the day, they're mostly just names to me.

What I would've liked were some specific examples to illustrate your points. There is a post, I don't know if you're aware of it, but it compares 30 different translations of a single poem by Basho. A few of these would have been helpful.

Here's the link if you fancy a shuftie at it: Matsuo Bashô's Frog Haiku (30 translations)

9:00 AM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

Thanks, I did know about that webpage, it's a good one. I was hoping you'd chime in, I know you're interested in the topic.

I appreciate the feedback and suggestions. I will definitely follow your advice as I revise this essay.

A lot of the names are, admittedly, somewhat insider knowledge to haiku studies. I did provide links in some cases, though. I will add in a few exemplary poems when I revise.

9:52 AM  
Blogger Jon said...

Thanks for your very insightful essay. I am adding a link to


3:49 PM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

Thank you. looks like an interesting site. I'll be checking it our periodically.

9:22 AM  

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