David Landis Barnhill

David Barnhill is Director of Environmental Studies and Professor of English at the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh. His translation of Bashō’s haiku, Bashō’s Haiku: Selected Poetry of Matsuo Basho (SUNY, 2004) includes over 700 haiku with a brief commentary on each. His book Bashō’s Journey: Selected Literary Prose by Matsuo Bashō (SUNY, 2005) is the most complete English translation of Basho’s prose, including all five travel journals, his one diary, and many of his haibun. David has also published several articles on Bashō’s spirituality and he teaches a course called “Japanese Nature Writing.”

Home Winter 2013 Features Interview - David Landis Barnhill
An Interview with David Landis Barnhill PDF Print E-mail

By Robert D. Wilson


RDW:  Thank you, Professor Barnhill, for agreeing to be interviewed. Your voice has become an important one in an age when haiku seems to have lost its bearings, unable to define itself, the genre a mishmash of this and that with little direction. Matsuo Basho was definitive in his teachings, his hokku insightful, zoka-centric, and memorable. You have written much about Basho's creative, zoka, nature's unpredictable, never static creative force. Please tell our readers in lay terms what zoka is, and the role it plays in Basho's poetic vision.

DLB: Zoka concerns nature—how it works—and the relationship between nature and culture. In the West, we tend to see Creation as a one-time event long ago, either willed by a deity or exploding astronomically as a Big Bang. Zoka offers a fundamentally different perspective. Every moment is itself Creation. We live in a world of ceaseless creation. This is why the term “fresh” is such an important aesthetic and religious term in China and Japan. Every moment is wholly fresh and new, and a haiku should embody that.

Second, there is no external cause, whether a Biblical Creator or Aristotle’s Unmoved Mover. Nature itself is creative. Actually, there is a similar notion in the Western tradition: naturanaturans, “nature naturing,” nature spontaneously doing what nature naturally does. It is a medieval Western term, but of course, the notion of the Divine Creator was overwhelmingly predominant. But this started to change with the seventeenth century philosopher Baruch Spinoza, who emphasized the creativity and self-causation of nature. Later Samuel Taylor Coleridge and other Romantic poets picked up this idea. So the notion that nature keeps recreating itself is not alien to the West, and we certainly see it in the Christian nature poet Wendell Berry.

And third, zoka is creative in the aesthetic sense. What zoka does is infinitely fascinating and beautiful, overflowing with value. This is not the artistry of, say, a modern symphony playing Beethoven but more like improvisational jazz, in which what comes cannot be completely predicted but will arise out of and be harmonious with what just came before. The point, here, is quite striking. Every day, every moment, we live in an ever-shifting wondrous work of art – if only we could realize it.

Unfortunately, Bashō’s use of the term zoka is often translated as “nature” – which for us tends to imply a collection of natural objects or perhaps a specific area where few people are. But zoka is not nature in this sense but rather the wonder-full creativity of nature itself. I prefer to translate it as the Creative. Zoka is the creative quality and impulse of nature.

RDW:  You stated in your essay, The Creative in Basho's View of Nature and Art, the 2nd chapter in the book, Matsuo Basho's Poetic Spaces, edited by Eleanor Kirkham:

"The creative is Basho's term for the spontaneous creativity of nature, which parallels the creativity of great art.”

How does great art parallel nature's creative force, zoka, in Basho's worldview? In composing hokku today, how can we emulate nature's creativity, and by doing so, what would be its effect on our poetry?

DLB: One of the dualisms that has caused profound problems in the West is that between nature and culture. Such a split leads not only to philosophical problems but to our underlying sense of alienation from nature and the environmental degradation that keeps on increasing. If we are to achieve a feeling of harmony with nature and a society that does not continue to ravage the environment, we need a view that integrates nature and culture.

This emphasis in zoka on the aesthetic creativity of nature aligns it with human culture. Human creativity – art – should be like zoka. Even that is not quite accurate because it still suggests a split between human creativity and nature’s. Great art – true art -- is the human manifestation of zoka, just as is a bird song or the shifting and dissolving of a cloud. Writing haiku, then, should be our participation in the zoka of nature, which includes us, which we are. So great art is wholly natural and spontaneous, while art that is controlled, rational, and willful is something far less. And thus art, as the highpoint of human culture, is fully in line with nature.

RDW: Is the concept of zoka relevant today? Was Basho, in his assertion: "follow zoka, return to zoka" offering a suggestion or was he, in essence, saying the inclusion of zoka in one's hokku, is imperative? If so, why?

DLB: When Bashō admonishes us to “return to zoka” in the opening of the travel Knapsack Notebook, he is not saying “return to nature” by going off to live in the countryside. He means return to the dynamic impulse that animates all life and all true art. Such a conception is clearly relevant to our conception of nature, how we relate to the natural world, and how we see the relationship between nature and culture.

For Bashō, zoka is essential for haiku, at least for great haiku. In fact, he said it was essential for any art – he mentioned classical waka poetry, landscape painting, the Noh theater, and the tea ceremony. It is, in your words, an imperative. Bashō made this point in a rather extreme way in Knapsack Notebook. He asserted that to fail to see this essential quality of nature is to become a “barbarian and beast.”

Perhaps a much simpler and more positive way to look at this, is that great art must be powerfully vital and ever fresh – it must manifest, it must participate in, the Creative.

RDW: What is becomingness (koto) and how is it different from an object (mono)?

DLB: Another dualism of the West is between a static thing and the process of change, which is conceived of as somehow external to its essence. Thus, we assume a distinction between a thing or object and becomingness. But for Basho a thing is nothing other than something always in the process of becoming and part of the overall becomingness of zoka. Ultimately thingness and becomingness are “not-two,” as Zen would say. So too with a human life, which is always a process. As Bashō said, “each day is a journey, and the journey itself home.”

RDW: What is the context in which we should place Basho's texts as we read and, thus, interpret them? Was his worldview limited to the medieval Japanese literary tradition and, as R.H. Blyth and Kenneth Yasuda have asserted, Zen Buddhist tradition?

DLB: This is a very important issue. Certainly, Bashō had some training in and understanding of Zen, but it was part of a much larger, more complex worldview. The classical poet-monk Saigyō was, of course, a major influence on Bashō, and Saigyō lived before Zen even formed in Japan. There is also a significant presence of Pure Land Buddhism in his works, and some interesting comparisons can be made between some of his writings and the thought of someone like 13th century Pure Land thinker Shinran. Of course, Shinto is another dimension of his worldview.

But Bashō was not limited to these various parts of the Japanese cultural tradition. He was deeply influenced by Chinese culture. The Daoist Zhuangzi is, in fact, the most prominent religious thinker in his works. He was also deeply influenced by Chinese poets such as Du Fu and by Chinese aesthetics in general – and zoka is a manifestation of this. And one can recognize Neo-Confucian themes in his writings.

Twice I have given papers on Bashō’s religious worldview and have been told that I was wrong, that we have to limit our interpretation of Bashō to him being “just a poet.” Once when I talked of the sophisticated Buddhist thought in Bashō, a Japanese scholar told me that was mistaken– he was a poet. Stopped me right in my tracks. Recently when I spoke at a university of Bashō’s complex view of nature and his profound intimacy with the natural world, a scholar responded that Bashō, like other haiku poets, were simply poets sitting around writing poems with images from nature – within the confines of their cozy buildings.

I suggest we start with the hypothesis that Bashō’s views of nature and art and his spiritual life were subtle and complex and profound, and then see if his writings support that perspective. I believe they clearly do.

RDW:  Since most of us composing haiku and hokku, I see the two as two different genres, one reflecting the German-based university system of thought adopted during the Meiji Era by Shiki and his predecessors; the other, pre-Shiki poetics emanating from the Basho tradition, are not immersed in the Japanese cultural memory, what should be our guide in regards to the inclusion of aesthetics in our hokku, and is suggestion and contrast viable in generating a surplus of understanding?

DLB: I believe there is a clear difference between the haikai genre of Bashō and the haiku genre developed by Shiki. Of course, we can then overstate that difference and fail to see the important similarities and continuities. But I think American haiku culture is just beginning to reach beyond the poetics of Shiki. I find his poetry and poetics very appealing and sophisticated, but also limited when we begin to understand Bashō’s broader world of haikai.

Here is one, technical, example of the division between Bashō’s and Shiki’s poetics—and how these modern poetics have impacted not only the writing of contemporary haiku but also the translation of Bashō’s verse. There is a general acceptance – largely unquestioned – that haiku should not have titles or prefaces. Yet most poems by Bashō had titles or prefaces. He obviously thought they were appropriate and important, and to ignore them is to ignore Bashō. Yet hardly any translations of Bashō include those titles and prefaces. As for contemporary haiku, if you submit a haiku with a title or preface to an American publisher, you will likely find it dismissed outright. I believe this limits the art, and it is not in line with the haikai of Bashō.

RDW:  What is the role of kigo in hokku composition? Is a seasonal reference essential? Is the tidal movement of zoka sufficient, even without a kigo, if one's hokku contains authentic zoka DNA? Many today use kigo as an illustrative tool to enhance or help readers to picture a human trait. Some see no need for kigo or a zoka-centric focus, their haiku a senryu/haiku conglomerate. Still others champion place words, reasoning that everything is a part of nature. I think of Basho's statement: "Saigyo's waka, Sogi'srenga, Sesshu's paintings, Rikyu's tea ceremony --- one thread runs through the artistic Ways. And this artistic spirit is to follow zoka, to be a companion to the turning of the four seasons." Please elucidate.

DLB: Considering kigo and zoka together helps us see some of the complexity of Bashō’s tradition of haiku. There is not that much in the Chinese conception of zoka that highlights the distinctiveness of seasons and the recurring cycles of the year. In fact, there is a tension between zoka and kigo. Zoka is unpredictable change. It is “wild,” not in the sense of chaotic but in that its order is emergent and spontaneous. A poem with zoka should have that vitality.

Kigo, on the other hand, is rooted in the notion that the year has well-defined patterns and characteristic qualities. Kigo are code words for these patterns and characteristics, and they ground the poet, the poem, and the reader in the specificity of time. The Western tradition has taught us to think in universals and claimed they are what are most true. So we have come to think of nature in the abstract. But we never experience some universal “Nature.” We always experience nature-in-early-spring, nature-in-late-fall. The kigo insists on that specificity, and our relation to nature is sharpened by it. A haiku should have that keenness, merged with the creative vitality of zoka.

Kigo also serve another form of integration, a cultural one. A late spring haiku not only has a place in the cycle of the year, it also has a place in the literary tradition of countless late spring verses that have been written. Open up a Saijiki or Kigojiten, and you find not only explanations of the seasonal meaning of certain images but a gathering of poems that illustrate the kigo. When you write a mid-summer haiku, you have created something that exists within the tradition of mid-summer haiku. The notion of time in haiku is splendidly complex!

RDW:  Thank you, Professor Barnhill, for taking time from your busy schedule to educate myself and our readers. Yours is an important voice, one we all need to hear and consider. Is there anything else you would like to share with us regarding Basho's creative and his hokku?

DLB: I would like to suggest a new direction in haiku that would complement the notion of kigo and enrich the idea of zoka. Just as every experience in nature is of and within a particular season, nature is always experienced in place. Gary Snyder has said, simply, “the world is places.” That is, each place is distinctive, and we should attend to that uniqueness. This approach is part of the bioregional movement, which aims to nurture individuals and societies that are intimate with and in harmony with the specific nature of one’s place. At the level of experience—the level of haiku—we can’t become one with Nature, only with the specific nature we are in and are a part of.

Such “bioregional haiku” would develop over time a shared knowledge of the patterns and characteristics of specific places, just as the Japanese tradition developed over time associations with images, particular seasons, and specific qualities. Readers would need to learn, for instance, not simply the associations of summer evening, but the character of summer evening in the Blue Ridge Mountains, which is different from a summer evening in central Wisconsin or northern New Mexico. Of course this asks poets and readers to become more broadly and intimately familiar with nature in a wide range of places. All to the good.