|An Interview with Professor Peipei Qiu|
by Robert D. Wilson
RDW: Many haiku poets, though they don't represent the majority of Anglo-American haiku poets who do not participate in online haiku workshops, subscribe to haiku journals, or belong to haiku organizations, are extremely vocal about what is or isn't haiku, and are passionate in their love for haiku. Professor Haruo Shirane of Columbia University stated in an essay that much of the haiku published in Cor van der Heuvel’s Anthology of American Haiku resembled Imagist poetry. Professor Shirane's observation is relevant as the poetry in the anthology and the haiku written today by this small but vocal minority haven't changed much. In fact, their haiku is becoming even more distanced from the genre Japan shared with the Anglo-West during the Meiji Era. Many lack depth, and leave little to the imagination. The majority are advocating the non-necessity of using kigo in their poetry. The Short/Long/Short metric schemata indigenous to haiku has been jettisoned as well, and the divider between senryu and haiku has shattered, with most journals mixing them together and calling the two genres, collectively, haiku.
A lot of what I am reading has its roots in the teaching of R.H. Blyth, Kenneth Yasuda and of those influenced in Japan by the German-based university system prevalent in Japan today that paved the way for the colonization of Japanese haiku.
Part of the problem is the difference of understanding between the Anglo-American mindset regarding the place and role of nature and the traditional view of nature during Matsuo Basho's time, a mindset influenced by Daoism, Zen Buddhism, Shinto, and the Shamanic animist beliefs of the Ainu, which saw nature as something much more than THINGS, or an embellishment to juxtapose against a humanistic object-biased trait.
What role does nature play in the writing of haiku? Is nature an essential component in haiku regardless of what hemisphere they are written in?
PQ: When speaking of “the traditional view of nature during Matsuo Bashô’s time” we need to be aware that during Bashô’s time the word used to mean “nature” in modern Japanese, shizen, meant “naturalness and spontaneity” rather than the physical world. A term frequently used by the major poets to discuss the relationship between nature and poem writing at the time was zôka. Zôka has often been translated into “nature” by modern scholars, but this translation seems to be somewhat anachronistic.
Zôka came from a Chinese word written in two characters zaohua, whose literal meaning is “create and transform.” The word is widely used in classical Chinese texts, but evidences indicate that Bashô and many haikai poets of his time most likely learned the word from their reading of the Daoist classic Zhuangzi. Zôka encompasses several important notions of Daoist thought. To summarize briefly, it first refers to the natural way in which all phenomena come into being and transform. In other words, it is the working of the Way or Dao. Second, it suggests that the existence of all things and beings is the direct result of the workings of the Dao, therefore every thing/being spontaneously embodies the Dao. Third, to follow the natural way of each thing/being is at the same time to follow the Dao. Bashô considered following zôka essential to all arts in this philosophical context.
RDW: Basho had a strong sense of nature and saw it as essential to the composition of haiku. A haiku poet who didn't comprehend the power and message of nature with a non-subjective mind, in Basho's estimation, wasn't a poet to be taken seriously. Such a person wrote what Japanese haiku poet, teacher, and critic, Kai Hasegawa, calls “junk haiku.”
Basho wrote stern message to his followers:
"In the waka of Saigyo, the renga of Sogi, the paintings of Sesshu and the tea ceremony of Rikyu, one fundamental principle runs through all arts: those who pursue art follow zoka, and have the four seasons as their companion. Everything they see is like a flower and everything they imagine is like the moon. If one sees no flower, he is the same as a barbarian; if one has no moon in mind, he is no different from the birds and the beasts. Go beyond the barbarians and depart from the animals; follow zoka and return to zoka."
What's your interpretation, Professor Qiu, of Basho's stern words, and how relevant are these words today?
PQ: As I mentioned earlier, the concept of nature and the frame of reference by which Basho and his fellow poets constructed their verses and poetics were not exactly the same as those today. Although in Bashô’s writings the term zôka often is found in his depiction of scenic beauty, he seems to distinguish it from the physical world. In the same travel journal that contains his statement cited above, he writes: “I saw the masterwork of zôka in the beautiful scenes of mountains, fields and the coast, and following the footprints of devoted travelers who are free of worldly concerns, I came to know the way of a true artist.” (Kôhon Bashô zenshû, 6:85) In this passage zôka is not the landscape per se but what has bought it into being; this concept finds its philosophical roots in Daoist thought.
In the Zhuangzi zôka/zaohua is not a personal deity, but an infinite power, a movement that is unconscious and purposeless, and in conformity with the law of the cosmos. One of the grand premises the Zhuangzi frames is that by joining with zaohua one can attain ultimate freedom and perfection. With this in mind “following zôka” to Bashô in the physical sense was to discover and appreciate the masterwork of zôka, and through doing so to understand the way of a true artist. As you pointed out, Bashô’s mindset as a poet was not influenced only by Daoism; the impact of Zen Buddhism, Shinto, and the indigenous Shamanic animist beliefs also present in his writings, and his depiction of the landscape was deeply inspired by earlier travelers and poets such as Saigyô. Yet Daoist philosophy was no doubt the major underpinning of his statement above, which led him to see following zôka--immersing in the embrace of heaven and earth, appreciating its beauty, and following its course--the essential way to maintain aesthetic sensibilities.
Bashô left few theoretical writings on his poetics and his ideas about haikai composition were mostly recorded by his disciples. The statement above is the most elaborate passage he wrote concerning his poetic principle. By saying that those who follow zôka see nothing but flowers and think of nothing but the moon, Bashô makes “following zôka” the precondition of artistic perception. His call for “returning to zôka” further asserts that joining zôka is not only where artistic creativity begins but also its ultimate attainment. This call related importantly to Bashô’s effort to achieve naturalness in haikai composition.
Although haiku writing today is often perceived as an intuitive and extemporaneous process, haikai, or comic linked verse that gave birth to haiku, is a rigidly regulated genre. Its strict compositional rules inherited from the classical linked verse predetermined the occurrence of seasons and themes at fixed locations of a sequence and required poets to compose on certain topics, such as cherry blossoms and the moon, at designated places and with limited times. They also restricted the mention of specific topics to a number of successive links, and even prescribed in what form a line cuts and a link ends. We can imagine that these regulations made it very hard to maintain naturalness in haikai. Moreover, in order to transform haikai from an entertaining pastime to a high art, Bashô and his followers tried to infuse their verses with a greater cultural and literary import during the early years of their haikai school. However, while they successfully renovated the comic linked verse with new themes, images, and diction, Bashô became increasingly concerned that too much conceptual concerns and implications might damage the vitality of haikai. He then attempted to break the "heaviness" by emphasizing naturalness and lightness (karumi) in composition. In this context Daoist ideas that had had remarkable impact on the themes and images of Bashô and his school were enthusiastically adapted into their compositional poetics and, on this basis, Bashô put forth the stern statement “following zôka and returning to zôka.”
As mentioned earlier, zôka/zaohua does not simply mean “nature” but designates the natural and spontaneous process of creation and transformation of the Dao. The term in this meaning is often used interchangeably with the key notion ziran (naturalness and spontaneity) in Daoist discourse and, since the third century, has been widely employed in Chinese literary criticism to articulate naturalness and spontaneity in the creative process of poetry and literary work. Bashô was clearly aware of the connection between the canonical notions of the Zhuangzi and their application in the compositional theories of Chinese poetry and, expanding this connection to Japanese art forms, he declared that following zôka is the single most important principle that runs through all arts. In this meaning, Bashô’s call for “following zôka and returning to zôka” can be understood as “following the Natural and returning to the Natural,” with the “Natural” being the fundamental principle of both the Dao and poetic composition.
In order to put this principle into practice Bashô taught his disciples to awaken to the lofty and return to the common, and to eradicate subjectivity. His disciple Dohô writes:
The Master’s teaching is all about awakening to the lofty and returning to the common. That is, to constantly pursue the sincerity of poetry and return to the haikai we compose every day. Those who always adhere to [the sincerity of] poetry have the original color of their mind naturally manifest in the form of poetry. Therefore, their composition is natural and never constrained with artifice. If the original color of the mind is not beautiful, the expression is usually over-crafted. It is a reflection of the vulgarity of the mind that does not make constant effort to seek the sincerity of poetry.(Sanzôshi, KBZ, 7: 174)
The Master has said: "Learn about pine from pines and learn about bamboo from bamboos." By these words he is teaching us to eradicate subjectivity. One will end up learning nothing with one’s subjective self even if one intends to learn. To learn means to enter the object, to find its subtle details and empathize with it, and let what is experienced become poetry. For instance, if one has portrayed the outer form of an object but failed to express the feelings that flow naturally out of the object, the object and the author’s self become two, so the poem cannot achieve sincerity. It is merely a product of subjectivity.(Sanzôshi, in KBZ, 7: 175.)
Although the time, environment, and language in which haiku is composed today differ tremendously from Bashô’s and the interests of poets have also changed, the fundamental principle Bashô insisted remains true, and I think what he said about “awakening to the lofty and returning to the common” and “learn about bamboo from bamboos” are still relevant today for composing good poetry.
RDW: Thank you, Professor, for taking the time to answer these questions. You are, in my estimation, one of the foremost authorities on the influence of Dao on Basho.
Peipei Qiu earned her MA in Japanese Studies at Peking University and her MPhil and PhD in Japanese literature at Columbia University. She joined the Vassar faculty in 1994 after teaching for two years at the College at Lincoln Center, Fordham University. Qiu's works in English, Japanese, and Chinese have been published in the United States, Japan, and China. Her current research and teaching interests include comparative studies of Japanese and Chinese poetry, women in Chinese and Japanese literature, and Japanese language pedagogy. She is the recipient of a number of honors and grants, including The Mellon Foundation Grant, The Japan Society for the Promotion of Science Fellowship, Columbia University President's Fellowship, The Japan Foundation Dissertation Research Fellowship, Suntory Japanese Studies Fellowship, and The Japan Foundation Fellowship for professional researchers.