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A Brilliant Literature: Robert Wilson Interviews Professor Richard Gilbert, Part II (2009)
Robert D. Wilson and Richard Gilbert
(Originally appeared in Simply Haiku 7:1, Spring 2009)
RW: As a follow-up question, you mention that the "post-war Beats (beatnik writers) saw a need to 'grow their own souls,' to break with traditional expectations, preconceptions and cultural morals." One means of accomplishing this was the voice they discovered in haiku, a voice that should have embodied Octavio Paz's statement:
Modernity is not outside but within us. It is today and the most ancient antiquity, it is tomorrow and the beginning of the world; it is a thousand years old and yet newborn . . . (modernity) We want to trap it alive but it flaps its wings and vanishes in the form of a handful of syllables. We are left empty-handed. The doors of perception open slightly and the other time appears, the real one we were searching for without knowing it: the present, the presence. (qtd. from R. Gilbert, Poems of Consciousness, "Author's Preface", 2008)
Beautiful words that capture the essence of gendai haiku. And what is gendai haiku but the haiku of today . . . now far removed from the misconceptions the Beats innocently adhered to in their quest to "grow their own souls." Or is it far-removed? The Beats forged the past into an expression of the now, regardless of those positive and negative factors that gave birth to their expression. To say as Blyth did that the following haiku is the essence of haiku is naive, the product of defective research (based on the resources available to him at the time), influenced by his belief that Zen Buddhism was a dominant influence on Japanese short form poetry and Shiki's conceptualization of shasei and gendai poetic expression.
(The following haiku by Blyth is discussed at length in "A Brilliant Literature, Part I."
nureashi de suzume no ariku roka kana
The sparrow hops
Along the verandah,
With wet feet.
RG: We've covered the above haiku in relation to Blyth's translation, in the last question last time (in the previous issue). To review, in analyzing Blyth's perspective, it's clear that his approach to "the essence of haiku" was idiosyncratic. Blyth, a strong reader, sensed an essence within haiku which he based upon intimations of Zen Buddhism. As a result of such convictions, there exists an interpretive power in his commentaries. Yet to be fair, his connotations often lack aspects of evident poetic dimension, registers of meaning, authorial intention, literary reference, etc., and as a result his commentaries may be reductive or misleading.
And yet, just as Kerouac turns us on to the soul, the sense of spiritual and philosophic dimension and presence in being, Blyth does much the same via his idiosyncratic approach to haiku and haiku-culture translation, in English.
Sure, it's about America, and Buddhism, but it's all about Kerouac too, in his celebrated novels. We don't expect Kerouac to be an expert scholar of Buddhism, though he might "write" Buddhism in a way that leans readers toward a deeper sense of amazement.
Similarly, Blyth is not an expert scholar of haiku, if we are to compare him to a Japanese scholar of repute—and not by a long shot. Also, Blyth was more a reader of Buddhism than practitioner. He was not directly engaged in the forms, rituals, and especially meditation practices of Zen Buddhism (a critique leveled as well against his teacher, D. T. Suzuki).
An unaddressed issue for the haiku world in America (in the major journals, in essays by pundits) is that for decades the Beats were spurned, while Blyth's work was put on a high-culture pedestal; perceived as an exacting source-point of haiku knowledge and wisdom. Ironically, the attempts by the Beats to formulate an American conception of haiku were inspired by their readings of Blyth and Buddhism. Such formulations as Ginsberg's "American sentences" and Kerouac's "haikus," whatever the "official" haiku world made of them, drew largely from the same well. We could reverse their positions somewhat—Kerouac, biographers tell us, was a profoundly committed novelist; Blyth, a radical, expatriate outsider. While their lifestyles and approaches to their prevailing cultures differed, perhaps it's unsurprising to find Blyth associated more as a naïve-romantic outsider-figure related to '50s-'60s cultural movements than a respected translator-scholar, by contemporary Japanologists and other literary scholars.
The image of the Beats has shifted somewhat over the last 20 years. Yet it seems a recent phenomenon that an eminent book editor (such as Dwight Garner, below) can proclaim that On the Road is his "personal best" novel pick:
Kerouac's On the Road retains for me its galloping, yea-saying potency. It certainly is the book that Changed My Life (groan), even if I feel a little hesitant about admitting it. (It'd be far more glamorous to single out something by Genet or Conrad.) But then I was probably right smack in the middle of Kerouac's core constituency—a fat pimply kid in suburbia who simply had no idea, until this book fell into his hands, that literature could promise quite this much. As a hapless young writer, too, I can testify to his emancipating example. As Thomas Pynchon said about On the Road in his introduction to his collection of short fiction, Slow Learner: "It was actually OK to write like this! Who knew?" ("Personal Best: On the Road by Jack Kerouac" in ground. [Garner is an editor with Harper's Bazaar and Vermont Times, has reviewed books and profiled authors for the Village Voice, The Nation, the New York Times, Vanity Fair and other journals].)
Kerouac's novels, and the poetry and performances of Ginsberg, Snyder and Burroughs, and others (McClure, Corso, etc.) continue to exert a powerful cultural influence: a "galloping, yea-saying potency," an "emancipating example." Yet Garner ameliorates his verve: "Was Jack Kerouac a great writer? Probably not. Will I reread him more gratefully than most Great Writers I can think of? Absolutely" (ibid).
It may be hard for those under 50 to believe that Kerouac and Ginsberg were authors whose very names were verboten in the halls of academe. Garner's apologetic praise bears witness to this historical context. The achievements of the Beats remain academically questionable. Kerouac may have been a "Fabulous Yellow Roman Candle"—but was it good writing? What do we mean, in even proposing such a logical conundrum? Novels and poems, and haiku in English: bones of contention. And here we are. Needed: New voices to find haiku literature anew, express it, comment upon it, for the contemporary era. While there has been some groundwork done in the '70s-'90s, lacking serious academic study, haiku scholarship languishes.
What the Beats have to do with haiku in America is partly what they have to do with Zen Buddhism, with street poetry, with getting back to the Bard, to relevance, and spontaneity as a primary act of literature, literary style, and lifestyle. It's what they have in connection with Alan Watts, with LSD and hallucinogens and jazz, the beat of the spoken voice and soul power, of the voices and visibility of the down and out, a search for the sacred, anti-establishment stances, consciousness awareness, politically, socially, and at least in mind, sexually. The Beat movement was a new attempt at citizenship in modernity, and in presence.
Ginsberg lived by Blake, chanted peace mantras at Vietnam moratoriums protesting the war in Washington, D.C. He was openly, flagrantly gay. He exalted drugs, not for recreation, but to know, to deepen, to stay up, to talk real, not ideal; instead, angry, confused, urban, searching:
I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by
madness, starving hysterical naked,
dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn
looking for an angry fix,
angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly
connection to the starry dynamo in the machin-
ery of night,
(excerpted from the first stanza of HOWL, arguably the most important American poem since Whitman: http://members.tripod.com/~Sprayberry/poems/howl.txt)
You know—read it and know, read it and remember. Read it and wake up! Is it any wonder the Beats were (and largely continue to be) shunned in college classes? How might even moderate, accommodating parents respond to those teachers who distribute such poems and novels to their children, celebrating a romantically desirable lifestyle which taunts the establishment, is in the swim with illegal doings, at odds with material success, money, and fraught with emotional and physical risk? And if you're living in Ohio, Creationism is in. No it's not easy teaching the Beats, or even acknowledging them, in the halls of academe. Yet their works continue to inspire new generations—the book sales remain remarkably high.
Oddly, Blyth is associated with this camp, due to his idiosyncratic Zen Buddhist bent, and cultural associations, in that the timing of his translations bursting on the Beats, the Beat renaissance, and early hippie eras, in the '50s into the '60s, provided a kind of literary celebrity to those in the know. Haiku in English, on the whole, despite the rules and definitions of the Haiku Society of America, or whoever sought to elevate the new genre, has likewise been rejected in academe, along with the Beats and Blyth (who was in a sense guilty of being off-Beat, by association).
At the dawn of our new century, an informal online discussion about Blyth by a group of eminent scholars on the PMJS (Premodern Japanese Studies) listserv occurred in 2000 . The conversation is excerpted below, due to space considerations, with apologies to all participants, in the hope of presenting a fair snapshot of how the figure and work of Blyth is viewed by knowledgeable scholars working in allied fields:
MM: For me, and I suspect for many others, [Blyth] was a hugely important early introduction and a key to my decision to study Japanese literature. But I realize I know next to nothing about him. (Dr. Meredith McKinney, Faculty of Asian Studies, The Australian National University)
MW: . . . it would probably be true to say that Blyth's position in "the history of the study" of "the Japanese classics" is disputed. If my memory serves me right, a distinguished member of this list once said in a book review that he sometimes wished Blyth's books could be hidden away in the closed stacks of libraries, out of reach of impressionable undergraduates! (Michael Watson, Professor of Japanese studies and comparative literature, Meiji Gakuin University, Yokohama. Resident in Japan from 1980.)
RB: I don't know about being distinguished but it was I who commented somewhere, I don't remember where, about hiding Blyth's books. Although it is undoubtedly true that his books have had extraordinary influence, and I too was undoubtedly drawn to study Japanese in the first place by the likes of D. T. Suzuki and Alan Watts, I now find Blyth's books quite appalling. The book quoted by Michael [The Genius of Haiku: Readings from R.H. Blyth], which I actually discovered in Japan a few years ago, only served to strengthen this belief. He led the charmed life of an English eccentric in Japan and was obviously indulged by his printer Hokuseido. I remember hearing once that his manuscripts were simply printed as is with no change whatsoever. It shows, I'm afraid. Is there anyone out there who wished to stand up for him? (Richard Bowring, Professor of Japanese Studies, University of Cambridge, UK)
DG: I also find him infuriating at times—why, for example, does he never give references for the poems he chooses?—but I do admire his range of haiku and his translations of them. (Daniel Gallimore, Associate Professor, Japan Women's University, Tokyo.)
RM: A few words in defense of Blyth . . . Whatever their imperfections—and I admit that Blyth can be a bit too exuberant at times (like Walt Whitman)—these earlier pioneers must have had some merit if they drew you "to study Japanese in the first place." While personal preferences are sure to change over time, we need not discard the sources of our early enthusiasms and hide them away from "impressionable undergraduates." Let them make their own judgments. (Robert E Morrell, Professor Emeritus of Japanese Literature & Buddhism, Dept. of Asian and Near Eastern Languages and Literatures, Washington University in St. Louis)
RB: The point about Blyth is that last season's fruit is still being eaten and last year's words are still this year's language. I find that a problem. (Richard Bowring)
RM: I am always more than somewhat surprised at the hostility which Blyth, Watts, D.T. Suzuki, et al., still provokes. Back in the early '60s, my mentor, Bob Brower, would almost have had a seizure if anyone so much as mentioned R.H. Blyth or Alan Watts. . . . But almost a half-century later, I am baffled by the antagonism toward Blyth and Watts. . . Note also how the "Beat Generation," is probably more about adolescent rebellion than about "Zen". I wonder why? (Robert E. Morrell)
MM: It crossed my mind that the study of "haiku" in general may be felt by scholarly circles in the west as just a little disreputable. We're all perfectly comfortable with tanka, and yes sure renga is fascinating stuff too, but when it comes to "haiku" . . . somehow more the province of the flaky and the merely popular conception of J[apanese] poetry. Of course this is putting it a lot more bluntly than most would be prepared to acknowledge, but might it nevertheless have a grain of truth, or is it just my impression? And if it's so, how much can this be laid to the door of Blyth, and to scholarly fastidious reaction to him? (Meredith McKinney)
JB: i think some people who are into haiku without having japanese like it because it is philosophical rather than because it is literary. philosophical in a rather sentimental sense, i mean—all about oneness of existence, etc. one can't do that so easily with tanka or renga. . . . i remember reading blyth on zen in english literature when i was fourteen, beside lake okanagan in british Columbia . . . and i imagine blyth did something to turn me towards japanese literature, along with d.t. suzuki, who i read during the beat age. ditto alan watts. but i don't recall ever thinking of any of them as a tower of wisdom or learning. i guess all they did was let me know that there was an interesting civilization out there on the other side of the world. a good corrective to what i was getting in school . . . now that i think of it i remember getting quite excited about the title 'zen in english literature'—the idea that the former could be found in the latter seemed positively brilliant. it still does. who would have the nerve to title a book like that today? these people who stand there at the beginning of the world, the opening of a new horizon—i say let them make their mistakes and be appalling—. . . one way to teach japanese literature is through the images that we in countries other than japan have had of it ... (Janine Beichman, Professor, Daito Bunka University and Visiting Scholar 2008-2009, Columbia University.)
RB: I don't want to be misunderstood here. The study of haikai literature is extremely interesting and important and Shirane's recent work on Basho shows one way how to do it properly. What I find difficult to accept about Blyth is not the translations as such but his gushing, undisciplined prose, which I find difficult to read and impossible to take seriously. The Zen business is also a major stumbling block and has to do with his uncritical acceptance of the writings of Suzuki. No one has ever persuaded me that haikai or later haiku have ever had anything to do with Zen. See the truly excellent article by Robert Sharf, "The Zen of Japanese Nationalism" in History of Religions 33.1 (1993). (Richard Bowring)
(Please see http://goo.gl/tH3vQ3 for the full discussion. PMJS continues as a "google list" group: http://groups.google.com/group/pmjs)
To recap, as imagined soundbites in an NPR news overview:
"The study of 'haiku' in general may be felt by scholarly circles in the west as just a little disreputable. . . . [Haiku studies being] more the province of the flaky and the merely popular conception of J[apanese] poetry."
". . . A distinguished member of this list once said in a book review he sometimes wished Blyth's books could be hidden away in the closed stacks of libraries, out of reach of impressionable undergraduates!"
"I now find Blyth's books quite appalling."
"He led the charmed life of an English eccentric in Japan and was obviously indulged by his printer Hokuseido. I remember hearing once that his manuscripts were simply printed as is with no change whatsoever. It shows, I'm afraid."
"I also find him infuriating at times"
"The point about Blyth is that last season's fruit is still being eaten and last year's words are still this year's language."
"Back in the early '60s, my mentor, Bob Brower, would almost have had a seizure if anyone so much as mentioned R.H. Blyth or Alan Watts. . . . Note also how the 'Beat Generation' is probably more about adolescent rebellion than about 'Zen.'"
"People who are into haiku without having Japanese like it because it is philosophical rather than because it is literary. philosophical in a rather sentimental sense . . ."
"What I find difficult to accept about Blyth is not the translations as such but his gushing, undisciplined prose, which I find difficult to read and impossible to take seriously."
"The Zen business is also a major stumbling block and has to do with his uncritical acceptance of the writings of Suzuki. No one has ever persuaded me that haikai or later haiku have ever had anything to do with Zen."
Blyth and the Beats are to an extent twin constellations. It's essentially a twinned critique: "philosophical in a rather sentimental sense . . ." This is a problem for the Beats, a problem for Blyth, a problem for naïve-romantic composition and interpretations of haiku in English, and a problem for the future of the genre.
Yet in contrast to the various degrees of disparagement in the discussion above, it seems to a person, everyone who had anything to say was inspired by Blyth, Watts, Suzuki, Zen Buddhism, the Beats, in some admixture:
"For me, and I suspect for many others, [Blyth] was a hugely important early introduction and a key to my decision to study Japanese literature."
". . . it is undoubtedly true that his books have had extraordinary influence…"
". . . I do admire his range of haiku and his translations of them."
". . . these earlier pioneers must have had some merit if they drew you 'to study Japanese in the first place.' While personal preferences are sure to change over time, we need not discard the sources of our early enthusiasms and hide them away…"
". . . I am baffled by the [contemporary] antagonism toward Blyth and Watts."
"i remember reading blyth on zen in english literature when i was fourteen, beside lake okanagan in british Columbia . . . and i imagine blyth did something to turn me towards japanese literature, along with d.t. suzuki, who i read during the beat age. ditto alan watts."
What's not being overtly stated, beyond such declarations that "these early pioneers" were "a key to my decision to study Japanese literature," is that a whole generation of Japanologists, and other academics in the humanities were likely inspired by the radicalism of the era in which these contemporary scholars were themselves youthful students and researchers. What of the life-changing, life-enhancing, life-inspiring realities mentioned, brought about by the writers in question? Why the protracted silence? The texts are, simply, academically unsuitable. In the haiku world, the depth of irony is Shakespearean. Has the life of inspiration through the vehicle of art ever been further distant from the garnering and teaching of contemporary democratic knowledge? Yet this situation presents an opportunity, an open field, resulting from silences decades long.
I would wish for a svelte and savvy Kerouac, but even if she existed, there are no North Shore houses for rent at $50/month facing the sea, no safe hitchhiking. If bohemians abound, cynicism attends smarts, and who can blame them? The radical alternatives of earlier postwar eras have failed. This is what both the Beats and Blyth offered: alternative cultures, deepened philosophies and a new poetics.
Modernity is not outside but within us. It is today and the most ancient antiquity; it is tomorrow and the beginning of the world; it is a thousand years old and yet newborn... [Modernity] We want to trap it alive but it flaps its wings and vanishes in the form of a handful of syllables. We are left empty-handed.
Modernity, our moment, our "era"—a concept crucial to gendai haiku, is the only gift we are given and can give: this empty-handed presence. Did the Beats fail, and did Blyth? Not if we are inspired. It's worth reading Kerouac again, and Ginsberg. Yet they also recede, as Blyth recedes, as the past recedes. What remains is passion as expressed in the ideas and stories. And good storytellers are rare enough. The inspirations of the era of Blyth and the Beats can be examined in the light of contemporary scholarship, in an integrated fashion, as part of a search for a new and deepened understanding of haiku poetics:
The doors of perception open slightly and the other time appears, the real one we were searching for without knowing it: the present, the presence.
under barns and naked —
the motionless world of time
February 12, 2009