Robert Hass, on translations, haiku and poetry



this program is made possible in part by the rouse company Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts Maryland poet laureate Roland Flint talks with national poet laureate Robert Haas welcome to the writing life we have the rare pleasure this afternoon of a few minutes with the poet laureate of the United States Robert Haas Robert Haas has published three books of his own poems and collect collections of other kinds as well most recently an anthology of haiku called the essential haiku with about a hundred or so haiku by each of basho busan and Asia he is also a writer of criticism and his 20th century pleasures a few years ago received a National Book Critics Circle Award in criticism he has lots of other distinctions including him a grant from the MacArthur Foundation and we're going to talk a little today and hear some of his poems he of his three books the most recent is human wishes the others our field guide and praise and I recommend them all to you very heartily indeed welcome Bob thank you I just had a few simple questions to ask the main point really is to hear some poems as far as I'm concerned but I know you're commuting now back and forth between California and Washington and I wonder how that's going I wonder in connection with that if how much teaching you're doing now and if you're getting any writing done with all this travel some I set up as I teach my class I had to make an arrangement which I teach my classes at Berkeley on Mondays and Tuesdays last semester the semester all day Monday so often I'm on the plane again on Tuesday and how's it going it's going yeah and writing you have any time for right I've been able to finish a manuscript of a new book I've been able to revise poems I haven't started much new work though I've tried to keep I've tried to keep track of this experience by writing a lot of stuff on public transportation whether anything comes of it journal entries journal entries I thought I was right some taxi cab haiku and airplane sonnets and we'll see what comes I'm interested of course in the new book and I wonder if if you would describe the poems in it as more like the books of the forms in praise or more like those in human wishes I'm thinking about the little prose poems do you want to issue yeah I there are no there's no more prose of those experiments in prose except that one long piece in which I got interested in experimenting with moving back and forth between verse and prose and there's one poem in the new book that does that but the rest of it is verse in various forms well I'm looking forward to that but I I like very much some of the what you're calling experiments now and inhuman wishes and I hope we can hear some of those and some others as well maybe we could begin with that if you don't mind sure in in you can read whatever you like of course I was most interested in hearing two of my favorites from the book the churchyard first the beginning of churchyard is interesting to me with it because I started writing these things and I was thinking about the prose poem as it got called and realized that in America it was typically packed full of what people thought of his imaginative writing because it made them nervous to sound too much like pros so it was full of a lot of zany metaphors and so on so I got interested in using exactly the rhythms of pros to see what I could do with it and when I wrote this first sentence one morning it startled me and I so this is church art Somerset mom said a professional was someone who could do his best work when he didn't particularly feel like it there was a picture of him in the paper a face line deeply and morally like Auden's an old embittered tortoise the corners of the mouth turned down resolutely to express the idea that everything in life is small change and what he said when he died I'm all through the clever young men don't write essays about me in the fleshly world the red tulip in the garden sunlight is almost touched by shadow and begins to close up someone asked me yesterday are deer monogamous I thought of something I had read when deer and the British Isles were forced to live in the open because of heavy forest thing it stunted them the red deer who lived in the Scotch highlands a thousand years ago was the third larger than the present animal this morning walking into the village to pick up the car I thought of a roof where I had slept in the summers in New York pigeons in the early morning sailing up Fifth Avenue and silence in which you imagine the empty canyons the light hasn't reached yet I was standing on the high street in Shelford village outside the fussy little tea shop and I thought a poem with the quick lice-ridden pigeons in it might end this is a dawn song in Manhattan I hurried home to write it and as I passed the churchyard school was letting out Luke was walking toward me smiling he thought I'd come to meet him that was when I remembered the car when he was walking toward me through the spring flowers and the eighteenth-century gravestone his arms full of school drawings he hoped not to drop in the mud my favorite I think reading it that incident at the end where the father is coming home and sees the child with different expectations from his own that must have happened and the other one the other particular favorite of mine is that is the one called a story about the body I'll read it a story about the body the young composer working that summer at an artists colony had watched her for a week she was Japanese a painter almost 60 and he thought he was in love with her he loved her work and her work was like the way she moved her body used her hands looked at him directly when she made amused and considered answers to his questions one night walking back from a concert that came to her door and she turned to him and said I think you would like to have me I would like that too but I must tell you that I've had a double mastectomy and when he didn't understand I've lost both my breasts the radiance that he carried around in his belly in chest cavity like music withered very quickly and he made himself look at her when he said I'm sorry I don't think I could he walked back to his own cabin through the pines and in the morning he found a small blue bowl on the porch outside his door it looked to be full of rose petals but he found when he picked it up that the rose petals were on top the rest of the ball she must have swept them from the corners of her studio was full of dead bees I think the ending has it's one of my favorite effects and recent poetry it reminds me of something Randall jor-el says about Frost design that is that it's an unmistakable effect or so I thought at first my first response was she's saying to him in this eloquent way when you looked at me you thought I was all rose petals and then you found out this fact of my surgery and I became all dead bees to you and it was about two days later when I had this other perception and it filled it filled me with radiant's like music to think it she's also saying your young man's attraction to me was such a pleasure to me at my age across cultures and art forms I thought you were all rose petals but now I find out you're dead I was this morning to the some high school students in Columbia and they were asking me what it meant and of course I avoided the question saying truthfully that I didn't think about I thought about the rhythm of the phrasing of it and the students said well that's interesting but I'd like to point out that these pollinate flowers students say something like that and I read it I've been reading it now and that at readings myself with your permission retrospectively and I had a student at a high school get the second meaning first I was very impressed well thanks for that I'd like to talk a little bit about your work in translation I don't think I said in introduction but Robert Haas is the chief translator now for Chashma me wash the great polish Nobel laureate and I wondered in connection with that how you work if he does a an English version first he's of course lived in in the States in California for many years and speaks impeccable English if he does versions first and how much polish you've learned or picked up along the way well I've been doing this now for over 15 years this bringing this body of fifty years of work into English and when I began I knew no polish at all and in fact I was curious to see some of his poems that had not been translated that I'd read about and so I was working with a friend of mine polish journalist named Renata Gorski and she would read them in Polish we'd go over them word by word she taught me Polish prosody how the music of Polish verse work and would often give me a word by word line by line commentary and then do a tape and then I would take it home and work on the poems and then at a certain point we would show them to mr. Mellish and then Renata left I was midway in this project very interested and I began to work with chess off directly and at first we I asked him to imitate this process and of course I had by then discovered I was in this for a while so I bought and bought polish grammars and dictionaries tapes very lazy about it I was trying to study Japanese in fact I put off not learning Japanese in order to not learn polish but I've picked up a little now as we do it over the years he really makes the first draft in English and sometimes they're quite good sometimes if he's tired it's very the hardest thing for foreign speakers is to tell enough ramada often that's all I do you know it can be very maddening to say a man walked in the kitchen or do you say the man walked in a kitchen it's a huge difference and I think it has to do with slovak the in bulgarian at least articles come at the end of words and articles are used much more sparingly in english yeah it's true of Slavic languages lots of languages actually so sometimes I just slightly de pollen eyes his syntax it's a matter of light editing and sometimes the whole poem has to be Rican sieved and we work at that together we almost always I mean I always of course make a point of reading the original text because sometimes he actually will rewrite the poem and I see as he's translating so I'll say well why did you say this here what Julie about this line about your father whatever so I picked up a little but really a very little polish I can I can make it through a newspaper haltingly that's pretty good huh that's pretty good point I've heard you speak together and it appears that you've become quite good friends and we're it appears closely and so that seems to be a nice dividend as well yeah it's been wonderful working with him of course he's an amazing man and he's seen so much of the horror of the 20th century and written this great complicated body of work and he just doesn't think like an American in ways that are really interesting to me can you read something of something you've translated for me or there's so much that I hardly know what to do so I'm almost going to pick something as the as the book falls open it's called a confession this was written in 1985 when he was 76 years old my lord I loved strawberry jam and the dark sweetness of a woman's body also well chilled vodka herring in olive oil sense of cinnamon of clove so what kind of profit am I why should the spirit have visited such a man many others were justly called in trustworthy who would have trusted me for they saw how my empty glasses throw myself on food glance greedily at the waitresses neck flawed and aware of them desiring greatness able to recognize greatness wherever it is and yet not quite only in part clairvoyant I knew what was left for smaller men like me a feast of brief hopes a rally for the proud a tournament of hunchbacks literature it's very like him isn't it all of that immersion and things of the world sensory things of the world and this dark brooding you know morose conscience and the humor that's wonderful maybe maybe you can read more later maybe we can talk a little about your work in in the haiku that led to the central haiku I have I have a lot of questions about that I've been reading it with great pleasure and I have heard you read from it before I'm intrigued by again this question of how much Japanese you had to master in order to do this or how you worked doing it not very much I used I was very attracted to the haiku because for the reasons that everyone who was attracted is the amazing clarity of seeing in the poems and but when I first looked at them I guess I had the from our youth what translations of haiku there were were typically in gift shop books I thought of haiku is kind of the stuffed animal of poetry and at a certain point I began to see how impressive their seeing was and then also to get some sense of the depths of the philosophical traditions that underlay what were apparently very simple poems so I started avidly reading and comparing translations and of course then that raises the question if you read it one translation says autumn evening a crow has just settled on a bear branch and another one says a crow is perched on a bear branched loneliness you think what did the man right so I went to get dictionaries and grammars just to kind of see what was there uh-huh and often what I'd see is with the three or four translations how I would do it and so I started making versions for myself and it made me so happy I just set myself the exercise of doing one a day for a long period of time and then I fell in love with these three very different poets the thinker generally regarded as three of the four great masters in this tradition so I would just do one a day I had no thought at the time of making a book I was just I was reading but you had in order to read in this way in translation you have and at a certain point my publisher said you should do a book of these and I said I want to wait until I learn more Japanese and then I began working on the Melosh and it drifted away and then last year I think he said let's do a book of the haiku look face it you're never gonna learn any more Japanese so I went through as carefully as I could and read all of the English language and most of the French language scholarship on the poem so I could make sure I'd gotten it more or less right and could annotate them in interesting ways have you talked to Japanese speakers about them have you had any response yeah I was worried about what the scholarly journals would say about and I try to make clear in the book that how limited my Japanese is they they're they've been responded very favorably especially because I'd read all of their houses you know so that and the criticism is wonderful there's a lot of good work it's buried in obscure journals but it's helpful in understanding the poems I'd like to hear some of course but I there was one other thing that intrigued me in the introduction you say that all three of these poets living in the 17th century the end of the or the beginning of the 18th century beginning and the last one Issa at the end of the century yes that all three taught poetry I was intrigued by that I thought this was an American innovation in the workshop yeah so I wondered what you look what that meant to them well it's a bit complicated to explain but the I mean I guess the first thing to say is that haiku as Americans understand it little three line or seventeen syllable poem 575 didn't really exist in Japan as an independent entity until the beginning of the 20th century the little that little verse in the 1770 was called Haku and it meant roughly a starting verse there was a practice it began in the courts and it's very Japanese it began really centuries earlier in which they would take the typical five line poem and they'd improvise it in a call-and-response form as if I wrote we're sitting in the studio under the television lights it's an October afternoon outside those three lines you had to write two more lines to finish ha ha and then which you could you could imagine a couple of Renaissance poets or a couple of American poets doing that as the form developed suppose your next two lines were there was broken light on the lake when the Sun came up so it would go we're sitting in a television studio under the lights outside it's a late March afternoon there was broken light on the lake when the Sun came up a third poet would then take there was broken light on the lake when the Sun came up and add another three lines to make a new five line poem and then those three lines someone else would take two lines and make a new one and you kept changing the subject once you took there's broken light on the lake when the Sun came up it can't be odd it can't be spring anymore and it can't be in the lake and it can't be the Sun coming up it can be yeah there's let you say you know there's broken light on the lake and the Sun was coming up oh I see and many changes and the last leaves are falling from the lime trees on the shore or something like that now we're in autumn then you take the last leaves are falling from the lime tree on the shore only one cars headlights through the village at this hour suddenly we're in the dark right and then you could take only only one cars headlights through the village at this hour the sound of frogs on a summer morning the season of the year keeps changing the the world shifts its it can vent what it conveys is a deeply Buddhist sense of the endless mutability of life and that was the practice and people got together and did it as a as for pleasure as an as an evenings recreation and it became so popular the teachers were needed to to teach people how to do it and to oversee the activities and this profession of being a master of the hakuna ranga came into being uh and bosco busan and it's at each at different times in their life were in the sense hai cái' as it was called hai cái' masters teachers teachers of this social improvident ory social game of writing poetry the nearest thing to it really in in our tradition would be something like a 1920s jazz band where you have funny like Louie Armstrong lays on olek lays down a lick and then people improvise alright and he keeps some he keeps bringing them back and brand that and that was what it was like there's really nothing like it and Eva and these little individual sections were called haiku and the form emerged from that wonderful I love hearing you talk about this stuff and I do want to hear some haiku but we haven't heard many of your own poems and I wondered if you'd indulge me and read from your book praised the the image am I reading that John page that easy what is this about I don't know I'll read it I won't say what it's about the image the child brought blue clay from the creek and the woman made two figures a lady and a deer at that season deer came down from the mountain and fed quietly in the redwood canyons the woman in the child regarded the figure of the lady the crude roundness is the grace the coloring like shadow they were not sure where she came from except the child's fetching and the woman's hands and the lead blue clay of the creek where the deer sometimes showed themselves at sunup it's marvelous it it reminds me of someone's definition of of myth as at or near the boundaries of possibility over that I can't say I remember now where it came from I wish it were mine gonna happen that's yours now but how about some haiku were just about out of time and okay I'd love to hear some haiku let me read some of the comic ones by mrs. which delight me don't worry spiders I keep house casually bats flying in a village without birds at dinnertime noon Oriole singing the river flows in silence goes out comes back love life of a cat mosquito at my ear does it think I'm deaf children imitating cormorants are even more wonderful than cormorants ideally should leave lots of quiet space around thing but the effect of reading them rapidly is you get something like the effect of the high Chi of the arranger of this endless transformation of experience so I'll do this for a minute what a strange thing to be alive beneath plum blossoms the man pulling radishes pointed my way with the radish deer licking first frost from one another's coats moon plum blossoms this that and the day goes asked how old he was the boy in the new kimono stretched out all five fingers a dry riverbed glimpsed by lightning in this world we walk on the roof of hell gazing at flowers it seems impossible but our few minutes are already over thanks Bob for being with us on the writing life and thank all of you for joining us for a few minutes today the Howard County poetry and literature society has been bringing distinguished writers to audiences since 1974 cable audiences have enjoyed these national and international writers and poets through the series the writing life to become a member or for more information on hocopolitso call for 107 307 5 2 4

4 thoughts on “Robert Hass, on translations, haiku and poetry

  1. Buen vídeo literario.
    Sigo este canal, si os gusta mi canal de poesía . Bienvenidos.
    Saludos.

  2. Man, Roland Flint look just like James Wright. Both really good poets lost too early.

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