Bruce Ross

Bruce Ross is a humanities educator and past president of the Haiku Society of America. He has authored four collections of haiku, most recently summer drizzles . . .   haiku and haibun and and co-edits the annual Contemporary Haibun. He also authored How to Haiku, A Writer’s Guide to Haiku and Related Forms.

Home 2003-2012 Summer 2012 Features Bruce Ross Interview
An interview with Bruce Ross PDF Print E-mail

by Robert D. Wilson


RDW: Why is modern haiku seemingly undefinable, lacking clear definition, and oftentimes, a genre more akin to Imagism than to the hokku conceptualization of Matsuo Bashō?

BR:  In the USA and probably other, particularly English-speaking, countries, the inheritance from early modern engagement with oriental culture, including haiku, and with the great push of Ezra Pound’s Imagism and Amy Lowell’s “Amygism” and the work of painters from Impressionism forward oriented the West to a more “delicate” conceptualization of Eastern aesthetic as applied to its own versions of such conceptualization, call it the image, if you will. Certainly, this formulation, particularly in America after Pound, and later Objectivism, dominates haiku. But, if this is so, we are defining modern haiku in English (and other languages) in accordance with this conceptualization. Other directions, such as Zen conceptualization, experimental arrangement, etc, are secondary to this. Basho’s aesthetic, or aesthetics over his writing life, with regard to hokku, seem clearly defined, particularly though literary commentators. It would seem that the Western conceptualization through Imagism posited in modern haiku does not preclude values in Basho’s aesthetic. Most modern Western writers of haiku are probably writing out of the accrued sensibility of their given cultures, poetic traditions, and languages. Formulating the genre of haiku around images, in such a case, might not be so bad, and future discussions about haiku poetics might include issues of imagery, including standardized kigo in Japan, and perhaps so-called key words in other cultures. Perhaps even discussions dating from the 1970’s about decentering the image. Of course, haiku may be defined, as I have, as feeling connected to nature. The kigo is the province of that connection. The issue of feeling from “birds and flowers” to psychological expression in modern haiku is another issue.

RDW:You opined in your 2007 essay for Modern Haiku:"Now less and less relevant in everyday life are nature and beauty, the haiku moment, or attention to the particular." Please expound on this in detail.

BR: Jung stated in “The Symbolic Life” (1976):

Through scientific understanding, our world has become de-humanized. Man feels himself isolated in the cosmos. He is no longer involved in nature and has lost his emotional participation in natural events, which hitherto had a symbolic meaning for him. Thunder is no longer the voice of god, nor is lightning his avenging missile. No river contains a spirit, no tree means a man’s life, no snake is the embodiment of wisdom, and no mountain harbors a great demon . . . His immediate communication with nature is gone forever, and the emotional energy it generated has sunk into the unconscious.

In contemporary terms, we are in the postmodern condition: media-centered consciousness beyond McLuhan’s imagining, high-definition everything, artificial nature supersedes “real” nature, pollution of the air, water, even food of that “real” nature, population density dehumanizing humanity even more, etc. Consciousness is reduced to a micro peak experience of the wrong kind repeated over and over in addictive fashion. In such a state small wonder that Basho’s path of haiku in nature, Thoreau’s “contact” with nature, etc. seems less relevant.

RDW: What is and isn't a haiku?

BR: I have called haiku an “absolute metaphor” to emphasize its contact with such “real” nature. I have defined haiku, thus, “feeling connected to nature.” Also, to underscore the importance of this connection, I have described haiku as an epiphany, and, perhaps, haiku at its best is a true peak experience. In the background is consciousness and our relationship to Taoism’s “myriad things” and Husserl’s idea zu den Sachen, to return to the existential things themselves so that they reveal themselves. Better than opposing haiku and not haiku (I have listed the usual suspects in my “How to Haiku”) one might explore a gradation of approach to the values I have mentioned here. I gave an example of the “haiku moment” in “How to Haiku” by Virginia Brady Young, which still holds up:

             a sand dune

RDW: What is the importance  of using an "absolute metaphor in  haiku?"“The absolute metaphor in haiku includes the presentation of a state of wholeness in which the particular leads to the absolute and first things." What is an absolute metaphor?

BR: The “absolute metaphor” grounds haiku in consciousness and its relation to thenatural world, including human nature. Couching the term in the relationship of      transcendence and immanence raises the nature of what haiku is at its deepest formulation. In literary terms, this would include differentiating haiku in its essential expression from poetry, poetic idioms, and poetic agendas. But this is an old argument addressed with the beginning of modern Japanese haiku with Shiki, although it is still relevant.

RDW:How important are aesthetic styles such as ma and yugen to haiku?  How helpful are they in unearthing the unsaid?

BR: I explored this issue in my talk “Spaciousness as a Key Element in Haiku” which was delivered at the August 2011 biennial meeting of Haiku North America, Seattle, Washington. I discuss ma (an opening, space, interval) in relation to the kireji (or cut) which separates two parts of a haiku. This opening is often introduced by a poetic particle like ya or kana to express wonder or awe and thus intensify the emotional relationship of the two parts of a haiku. I sum up, “mathrough the kireji plays as important a roll as the season word (kigo) and season topic (kidai) in establishing the special dynamic of haiku.” As an example, I gave a haiku by Lisa Alexander Baron from “bottle rockets” (12:2, 2011):

the cupboard door
      that refuses to shut—
      endless summer rain

Yugen (mystery, subtlety) is introduced in my talk in relation to Shinto. I quote Motohisa Yamakage’s “The Essence of Shinto, Japan’s Spiritual Heart” (2006) on yoshiro, “a spiritual antenna for the spirit of Kami to descend in order to manifest its presence . . . including trees, stones, rocks, or in some cases animals.” In haiku such evoked equivalents of mystery, even otherworldliness, such as in the ghost figures in Noh to which the term is associated, if they work, would deepen that given haiku. One of my haiku later in the talk could serve as an example. It was experienced on a late night train through the mountains of central Romania.

Passing through continuous darkness and quite drossy I saw far up in the mountains a small village with a few lights. The haiku appeared in “Haiku Pix Review” (1, 2011):

          deep starless night
          reflecting the village light
          a few clouds

RDW:  Matsuo Bashō often contrasted the high and low in his hokku. How effective is this tool, the contrasting of opposites?

BR: Either/or thinking/feeling should be replaced by both/and thinking/feeling. In other words an inclusive poetic vision should eliminate the automatic syntax-like recording of contrast, particularly with regard to class distinctions, etc.,when they thus become a form of journalism. “Low” things could be responded to in their objectivity, such as they are. “High” things shouldn’t have quotation marks around them, better save that for senryu. At a deeper level, we are back to the problem of consciousness and the myriad things. With deference to Confucian social appropriateness and other such social conventions, where a cultured being, a jen, should be aware of such things, regard the saying, Confucian during the day, Taoist at night, as a metaphor of adjustment to the social fabric. But perhaps better, a Taoist day and night, which brushes past the pre-constructed social contract, to allow for an opening up to and of people and the myriad things. Ultimately, this would make for better haiku. As for decorum, I wouldn’t touch it with a ten-foot pole. In case you are referring totranscendence/immanence, which might apply here, I’ve already spoken. Still, Basho said it was all in the “Manyoshu,” that repository of the poetic lyrical Japanese spirit of feeling and nature. Basho was nonetheless a product of the new age he lived in with the end of feudalism and plenty of commonplace hustle and bustle. Out of which came haikai as an outburst of new feeling for the commonplace. His writing, including the social documents in the form of some of his travel haibun, express the new spirit. His poetics had ordinary spirit, often in a comic vein, raised to literary seriousness with a hint of “Manyosho”(万葉集, "Collection of Ten Thousand Leaves", the oldest existing collection ofJapanese poetry, compiled some time after 759 AD during the Nara period. /add by the editor) inherited depth of feeling.

RDW: Why do you live haiku and which poet has had the most affect on your conceptualization of haiku?

BR:  Basho once responded to the question of whether he would prefer spending all his time in Zen practice or in haiku writing that it was too late to make a choice because he was addicted to haiku (I know, haikai writing). I expunge “addiction,” living as I am in a “culture of addiction.” Yet over the years I have begun to cultivate an inner experience of “haiku moments” that at times feel like peak experiences. These experiences are what we all strive for, n’est pas. I wouldn’t try to conceptualize the art of poetry. My thought is that value of a haiku is in the given haiku. Some haiku poets along the way whom I responded to (or a part of me) were: Basho and Cor van den Heuvel for depth, Issa for joy, Shiki for his deep humanness, Anita Virgil for her phrasing, Carol Montgomery for her old dog, and Virginia Brady Young for her sand dune.