Robert Hass, Gerald Vizenor and the Japanese Haiku

Sunday, October 13 2013 21:09   Writing the West / Elise McHugh
It was early October and all through the states,
Western lit scholars were counting the days . . .

Well, really scholars and literature folks all over the world, but that didn't work in the rhyme.

But it is true. Folks including myself are busy packing and putting final touches on papers to present at panels at the Western Literature Association's (WLA) annual conference. This year the WLA is being held in Berkeley, California, from Oct. 9-12, 2013. I'm spared the stress of presenting a paper or moderating a panel, but like other press reps I will be hosting a book table showing off some of UNM Press's fine titles.
robert_hassI look forward to conferences like the WLA. As exhausting as these whirlwinds can be, they are invigorating and are a great way for people to connect and exchange ideas. A lot of projects and partnerships are born out of this type of conference, including book projects. I always enjoy listening to the keynote speakers and special guests this type of conference chooses to honor each year.

At WLA in Berkeley, attendees will be treated to distinguished speakers including Gerald Vizenor and Robert Hass, and the WLA is honoring Robert Hass with the Distinguished Achievement Award (Gerald Vizenor received this same honor a few years ago). I'm not going to detail every achievement in each of these authors' careers, but let's take a look at why they are so well positioned to talk to lovers of Western literature specifically and literature in general.

Former U.S. Poet Laureate Robert Hass is known not just for his poetry but also his work as a translator, which is an art in itself. His own work has been widely received and has garnered a number of different honors.

He was born and raised in California, and many of his books include exploration of Western themes and landscapes, though their subjects encompass more universal themes as well. He has translated much of Czeslaw Milosz's work from Polish and has also translated the work of the great Japanese haiku masters, Basho, Buson, and Issa. His concerns extend out to giving something back to the world, and he has been involved in literacy programs, including ecoliteracy.

In 1995, he cofounded River of Words with Pamela Michael. The program is part of St. Mary's College's Center for Environmental Literacy and the Kalmanovitz School of Education. It's mission? To create a network of people committed to teaching the poetry and art of place to young people and to encourage young people to explore and become passionate about the environments in which they live.

In an article for Mother Jones, Sarah Pollock said that Hass's tenure as poet laureate " . . . has been a more public expression of the lifelong concerns that inform his poetry: a close attention to the natural world, a sense of self developed in relation to the landscape, and acute awareness of both the pleasures and pains of being human."

Like Hass, Gerald Vizenor is a veteran writer who has received many accolades for his contribution to literature and to the history and cultural continuity of American Indian heritage. Vizenor is an enrolled member of the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe, White Earth Reservation and is of Anishinabe heritage. In an article for SAIL (Studies in American Indian Literatures), Kimberly M. Blaeser wrote, "Vizenor's voice and poetic vision have always reflected the dynamic reality of Anishinaabe experience, contemporary and historical.

His poetry, like his prose, issues at once lament, loud laughter, biting criticism, natural wisdom, and spiritual insight. He is, within his poetry, at once ironist, trickster, word warrior, and tribal dreamer." The University of New Mexico is lucky to have Vizenor as a distinguished professor of American Studies, a post Vizenor took up when he retired as distinguished professor of University of California, Berkeley.

Vizenor is deeply involved in cultivating the publication of other American Indian writers. He is currently coeditor of two university press book series: the University of Nebraska Press's Native Storiers (with Diane Glancy) and SUNY Press's Native Traces: Original Studies about American Indians (with Deborah Madsen).

When looking at the careers of both Robert Hass and Gerald Vizenor, I found an interesting and rather unexpected connection. Both are lovers and longtime students of the Japanese haiku form. Vizenor spent three years in the armed forces, serving mostly in Japan. In a 1995 article about Vizenor, a staff member of Utne Reader described Vizenor's use of the haiku: "The Japanese verse form flows together with trickster stories and Native dream songs in Vizenor's literary canon of surprise and delight."

And Kim Blaeser has noted that Vizenor "has been acknowledged as one of the foremost American haiku writers with two of his poems used to illustrate the form in Louis Untermeyer's The Pursuit of Poetry." In 1995, Hass translated and edited one of the best books of haiku in English, The Essential Haiku: Versions of Basho, Buson, and Issa. In a 2007 interview for Roadrunner Haiku Journal, Hass was asked how much Haiku has influenced his poetry. Hass responded, in part, "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. . . . [I]t seems to me that my debt is great to the poets I've most studied, Basho, Buson, Issa."

I remember when I was in grade school and learned about haiku-teachers expounded upon the fact that it was a brief poem in three lines, made up of seventeen syllables in a 5-7-5 pattern. It wasn't until years later I fully learned the beauty and complexity of this seemingly simple form. The fact that seventeen syllables in English don't match the compactness and flexibility of seventeen syllables in Japanese, and therefore the handed down 5-7-5 pattern didn't necessarily match the essence of its parent form.

In an article on the Aha!Poetry website, Keiko Imaoka notes that many North American poets and translators agree that "something in the vicinity of eleven English syllables is a suitable approximation of seventeen Japanese syllables, in order to convey about the same amount of information as well as the brevity and the fragmented quality found in Japanese haiku." Why? Because the Japanese language is more flexible than English, and individual grammatical units like nouns and adverbs can move about freely in a sentence.

There's so much more I didn't know when I was young, like the traditional reference to seasons in haiku that often end with a "season word," or kigo, that is used to specify the time of year. In the formidable The Book of Forms, Lewis Turco notes that in many respects haiku is "philisophically an outgrowth of Zen Buddhism" and therefore "an inquiry into the nature of the universe."

It is evocative, often sensory and imagery based, and poses a sudden moment of enlightenment or illumination into nature or the human heart and its relation to its surroundings. Looking at the work of both Hass and Vizenor, the influence of the haiku and all it traditionally accomplishes can be seen in their work, whether they're actually writing or translating haiku or writing in other forms.

What I fi
nd most striking about Hass's and Vizenor's interest in and service to the haiku is the fact that the WLA is honoring two iconic poets that represent the best of U.S. and Western literature, and yet they have both been greatly influenced by an ancient Eastern poetic form. For me, their interest in haiku is a great illustration of what I find most appealing about good literature: no matter where it is written or where it is placed, it transcends its origins to speak to people at an individual level and affects them in some way.

It allows individuals to experience places they have never been. It also allows them to see the world in new or unexpected ways and often allows them to feel that their thoughts and emotions are being expressed even when they're not the ones who have written the words. In my opinion, the WLA has chosen two excellent wordsmiths to celebrate this year.


Related Articles