Translating haiku seems like a natural fit for Robert Hass, a United States Poet Laureate and recipient of both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award for poetry. Hass says he likes poems that “get to the point.”
In the below video, Hass reads selected haiku by Kobayashi Issa from his book of translations The Essential Haiku: Versions of Basho, Buson, and Issa.
Issa is considered one of four great masters of Haiku. This seventeen syllable poetic form is known for its ability to squeeze astonishing beauty and depth of feeling out of plain language and direct observation. Issa’s poems are remarkable for their “pathos and humor,” especially in light of the string of tragedies that marked each stage of his life.
There is so much wit, skill, and humor in these short lines of poetry, as well as in Hass’s presentation of them. I hope they get your day off to a pleasurable start. Enjoy your Sunday!
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About Kobayashi Issa
Japanese poet Kobayashi Issa was born in 1763 to a farming family in rural Japan. He eventually took the pen name Issa, which means “cup of tea” or, according to poet Robert Hass, “a single bubble in steeping tea.”
Issa’s mother died when he was young, and he was raised by his grandmother. His father remarried, and Issa did not get along well with his stepmother or stepbrother, eventually becoming involved in disputes over his father’s property. When Issa was 14, he left home to study haiku in Edo. He spent years traveling and working until returning to Kashiwabara in the early 1810s. In Kashiwabara, his life was marked by sorrow— the death of his first wife and three children, an unsuccessful second marriage, the burning down of his house, and a third marriage.
Issa was also known for his drawings, generally accompanying haiku. His sketches are valued for the extremity of their abbreviation and simplification of experience (much like the haikus he wrote).
Issa wrote over 20,000 haiku, which have won him readers up to the present day. Though his works were popular, he suffered great monetary instability. As R.H. Blyth explains in A History of Haiku, despite a multitude of personal trials, Issa’s poetry reflects a childlike simplicity, making liberal use of local dialects and conversational phrases, and ‘including many verses on plants and the lower creatures. Issa wrote 54 haiku on the snail, 15 on the toad, nearly 200 on frogs, about 230 on the firefly, more than 150 on the mosquito, 90 on flies, over 100 on fleas and nearly 90 on the cicada, making a total of about one thousand verses on such creatures.’ By contrast, Basho’s verses are comparatively few in number, about two thousand in all.
Issa’s haiku are as attentive to the small creatures of the world—mosquitoes, bats, cats—as they are tinged with sorrow and an awareness of the nuances of human behavior. In addition to haiku, Issa wrote pieces that intertwined prose and poetry, including Journal of My Father’s Last Days and The Year of My Life.
About Robert Hass
Robert Hass is one of contemporary poetry’s most celebrated and widely-read voices. In addition to his success as a poet, Hass is also recognized as a leading critic and translator, notably of the Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz and Japanese haiku masters Basho, Buson and Issa. Critics celebrate Hass’s own poetry for its clarity of expression, its conciseness, and its imagery, often drawn from everyday life. “Hass has noted his own affinity for Japanese haiku,” the poet Forrest Gander has remarked, “and his work similarly attends to the details of quotidian life with remarkable clarity.” Gander described Hass’s gift for “musical, descriptive, meditative poetry.” “Robert Hass,” stated Carolyn Kizer in the New York Times Book Review, “is so intelligent that to read his poetry or prose, or to hear him speak, gives one an almost visceral pleasure.”
Hass’s first collection, Field Guide (1973), won the Yale Series of Younger Poets Award and established him as an important American poet. The book’s imagery drew on Hass’s native California countryside and background in Slavic studies. “The poems in Field Guide,” wrote Gander, “are rich with Russian accents, aromas of ferny anise and uncorked wines, and references to plant and animal life: the green whelks and rock crabs, tanagers and Queen Anne’s lace, sea spray and pepper trees of the Bay Area.”
Hass confirmed his ability with Praise (1979), his second volume of poems, which won the William Carlos Williams Award. “In many ways,” Gander explained, “Praise addresses the problems implicit in the first book: Can the act of naming the world separate us from the world? How is it possible to bear grief, to accept death, and how can the spirit endure?”
In 1984, Hass published Twentieth Century Pleasures: Prose on Poetry, a collection of previously published essays and reviews. In the volume, the author examines American writers (including Robert Lowell and James Wright) as well as European and Japanese poets. The book was well-received and won many awards, including the National Book Critics Circle Award.
His third collection of poetry, Human Wishes (1989), experimented with longer lines and prose paragraphs, privileging process and meditation over the poeticized images that had filled his earlier work.
Hass paid tribute to some of his non-Western mentors in The Essential Haiku: Versions of Basho, Buson, and Issa (1994), translations of short works by the most famous masters of the short Japanese poem. And, as Andrew Rathmann suggested in a Chicago Review article, Hass deserves a great deal of credit for these translations. “The translations…must by anyone’s standard be considered remarkable poetic achievements in themselves,” wrote the reviewer, “comparable—in terms of sheer written fluency—to the best poems in his three previous books” of poetry. When it was published in the mid-nineties, Hass’s book also brought a poetic form that has a long history of development in Japan to an American audience. As Mark Ford explained in the New Republic, each of the three haiku masters (Basho, Buson, and Issa) used the short verse form to record commonplace images in an uncommon way. Ford added that “Hass’s language is unflashy, his interpretations sensible and his pacing effective.” Ford declared that the three poets “demonstrate the ways in which great art may intensify and illuminate our engagements with the real, the experience of art.”
Hass’s other major work as a translator is his decades-long project of translating the Polish poet, Czeslaw Milosz. Working collaboratively with Milosz, Hass has translated over seven collections of the Nobel prize-winning poet’s work. In an interview with Guernica, Hass talked about the influence of Milosz on his own thinking regarding poetry and politics. Discussing the high symbolist mode of Wallace Stevens and Paul Valery, Hass argued “you can aim for perfection if you stay away from the hard subjects. But if you’re going to do what Milosz does, you can’t aim for perfection; your work is going to be messy and opinionated.”
In 1996, Hass published another collection of poems, Sun Under Wood. The book was awarded the National Book Critics Circle Award. The book deals more explicitly with autobiography, and includes poems about Hass’s childhood and alcoholic mother. In the estimation of David Baker, “all through Sun Under Wood, Hass’s ability to convert the comedic to sublime, the anecdotal to the metaphysical and ethical, the personal to the social, is remarkable.” He concluded, “this book reaches a level of achievement Hass has not reached before. It is literary and messy, discursive and lyric. It is risky, large, and hugely compassionate.”
From 1995 to 1997, Hass set aside his personal role as poet to take up the mantle of the nation’s poet, serving as U.S. Poet Laureate and poetry consultant to the Library of Congress. Long a largely ceremonial position, the poet laureate has recently become far more of a public advocate for poets and their work. In a sense, the new role was a logical extension of Hass’s personal, private work to a public arena. The laureate position also heightened the political sensibilities of the poet and his work. Hass recognized early on that the political and business climate seemed to have little use for poetry and other arts. Hass focused on promoting literacy, telling Francis X. Clines in the New York Times, “I thought an interesting thing to do would be to go where poets don’t go.” He visited businesses, convincing some to support poetry contests for schoolchildren and spoke to civic groups, trying to broaden their horizons. Because of these efforts, “Robert Hass is the most active Poet Laureate of the United States we’ve ever had,” wrote Los Angeles Times Book Review contributor Frances Mayes, “and he sets a standard for those who follow.”
After his tenure as poet laureate, Hass remained in the public realm, teaching, translating, editing and writing newspaper columns. As Stephen Burt noted “all that service seems to have strengthened Hass’s powers.” Hass’s first book post-laureate, Time and Materials: Poems 1997-2005 (2007), Burt declared “shows the worth of playing against type, the survival of his private talent and the artistic uses of his public life.” Containing poems about art and artists, meditations on middle age and descriptions of a California well-known to Hass readers, the book also features poetry that engages in world affairs, in contemporary politics and, notably, “Bush’s War” in Iraq—participating in what Nathan Heller in Slate called “large issues.” Unanimously praised by critics as a supremely well-crafted collection, Time and Materials won both the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize.
The Apple Trees at Olema, published in 2010 includes work from Robert Hass’s first five books, as well as a substantial gathering of new poems, including a suite of elegies, a series of poems in the form of notebook musings on the nature of storytelling, a suite of summer lyrics, and two experiments in pure narrative that meditate on personal relations in a violent world and read like small, luminous novellas.
In the mid-1990s, Hass co-founded the River of Words organization, which provides tools for teaching ecoliteracy to young students through multidisciplinary, interactive curricula. In addition to serving as the US Poet Laureate, Hass was Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets from 2001-2007.
On November 9, 2011, while participating in an Occupy movement demonstration at UC Berkeley, Hass was hit in the ribs by a police officer wielding a baton. His wife, the poet Brenda Hillman, was shoved to the ground by a police officer. He wrote about their experience in a November 19, 2011, New York Times opinion piece entitled “Poet-Bashing Police.”
Robert Hass teaches at the University of California, Berkeley, and lives in California with his wife, Brenda Hillman.
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This video is part of the Poetry Everywhere project airing on PBS. Produced by David Grubin Productions and WGBH Boston, in association with the Poetry Foundation. Filmed at the Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival. Issa and Robert Hass biographies courtesy The Poetry Foundation (Note: Some omissions and additions have been made to both bios).