The Spaces of Robert Hass




One of the peculiar things about haiku written in English is that it the people who creatively write it have often followed those who have translated it as the models for what they write. It is natural for translators to have somewhat of an unchallenged status about their knowledge of another language, but what if the translators simply misunderstand what they are translating and generally give translations that completely change what the haiku were in the originals?


Robert Hass is a distinguished poet and critic who has had a successful career that led him to even being the poet laureate of the United States for awhile, but it when comes to his book, “Translations from The Essential Haiku: versions of Bashö, Buson & Issa”  (The Ecco Press, 1994) it can unequivocally be stated that what he has published as the essential part of the first three great masters of Japanese haiku is often flawed by the single worse thing any translator can do, i.e. make the translations read as the complete opposite of what they are in the original language.


Tracy Koretsky has written an article titled “Haiku and its Relationship to Space” and she uses examples from Hass’ book to show how the Japanese masters used space in their haiku and what follows is such a comedy of errors in talking about the Japanese haiku used in the article that one can only shake their head and smile at them. And yes, you can blame Hass for this.


Koretsky starts off interestingly enough when she talks about the tonal quality of the Japanese aesthetic of sabi:

That is exactly the effect the unresolved tanka that is haiku has upon the Japanophone’s ear. This trailing off, this ellipses leading to nothing, effectively imbues haiku with its predominate tonal mode: the untranslatable quality known as sabi. Inadequately understood, sabi is the sadness of aloneness, or perhaps better phrased as the more Zen concept of the solitariness of no-mind.

Notice how space functions to convey this quality in this haiku by Bashö:

         first snow
         on the half finished bridge


The haiku she quotes does add to our understanding of what she has written, but since this is a Hass translation one has to assume that what the haiku aims for in Japanese might be a bit different than what he presents it as being in English.


In the early 1990s a Japanese man named Toshiharu Oseko self-published a two volume called “Basho’s Haiku” where he translates about two thirds of Basho’s haiku into English giving insight and commentary on each haiku. This haiku is in Volume Two on page 548 and this is how Oseko translated it:


Hatsu-yuki ya
hashi no ue ni.

The season’s first snow,
Is falling on the new bridge
Almost completed!


Immediately we are struck by the difference between the “half finished bridge” that Hass gave us and the “almost completed” one that Oseko does. The difference is so striking that there isn’t even a semantical argument about the two ideas.


The great thing about Oseko’s book is that he lays out and explains what the verb is in each haiku and how the conjugation of them works out in English. The way verbs are conjugated in classical Japanese are difficult enough for the average Japanese person, so this is an invaluable guide to how verbs work and the effects they give in the originals. He explains the verb conjugation here as:

Kake = kakeru: to build (a bridge)
kakari= kakaru: to start  ~ing
tari= taru: almost finished


Which is easy to see that this literally translates as “building bridge starting to finish” which although might seem like a tortured phrase to us in English is something that is natural to the Japanese. Sure, the language of Hass’ translation is more poetic, but there isn’t any doubt that Oseko correctly understands the grammar of the original and is able to accurately render the sentiments Basho expressed in this haiku.


Oseko also notes how the haiku has a preface that says “When Fukagawa O-hashi is almost finished” and also more information about what bridge it is:

The official name of the bridge was Shin Ohashi (New Great Bridge). The construction started in July and finished in five months on Dec. 7 1693. It was about 200 m. long. People living on the east side of the Sumida River were anxious for the completion, because they expected much easier access to the city center.


The woodblock print that is the picture on this article is of the Shin Ohashi and it is an imposing structure due to it having the height to let ships pass underneath it. Basho lived on the east bank of the Sumida River and no doubt having this bridge built affected his life and this haiku is attaching the thrill and excitement of the first snowfall with the feelings that accompany seeing a much welcomed bridge nearing completion. The woodblock print makes it easy to imagine what a sight it would be (and if you click on it you’ll get a fuller sized picture.) Which of course makes Koretsky’s conclusions on this haiku completely superfluous:

The bridge, the only mode of connection between people of the day, is not only unfinished, but, because of the snow, will remain so for the long winter ahead. The image confirms an unbroken emptiness of space and time lying ahead.


The only way she can get the reading of this haiku so backwards is because Hass has made the translation into something that the original never was. It also needs to be mentioned that although Tokyo does get some snowfall during the winter, the snow never accumulates and within a few days what has fallen melts away.


Yosano Buson is famous for writing some panoramic haiku that are able to convey an astonishing wide sense of view and space, so it is a bit surprising to have Koretsky arguing the opposite when talking about him:

One way, to borrow a term often applied to the paintings of Edgar Degas, is to “break the frame”. He was the first painter, at least in the Western tradition, to “crop” in ways that implied extension or continuation beyond the composition. For example, by depicting only the thigh and forearm of one of his famous dancers, Degas left the viewer to complete the partial limbs mentally. This is, in a sense what the second of the great classical masters, Yosa Buson (1716-1783) is doing in this haiku:

field of bright mustard,
       the moon in the east -
the sun in the west.


The problem with Hass’ translation is that he added the image of a “field” to it which isn’t in the original:


Na no hana ya Tsuki ha higashi ni hi wa nishi ni


The opening phrase of the haiku simply states “the mustard flowers” so the image isn’t delineated into the space of a field as Hass gives us, and although the translation faithfully follows the original after this, it is easy enough to see how inserting a field into the reader’s view crops the imagery. As Koretsky writes:

Notice that in Buson’s haiku above there is just pure description, and sparse description at that. Not only must the continuation of the mustard field be supplied by the reader, so too must the emotional content, the sense of awe, or perhaps humility, the poem instils. By the way, take care not to read meaning into the moon coming before the sun. The haiku has been translated both ways.


But the problem is that the “pure” and “sparse” description occurs because space has been defined by the translator’s decision to crop the mustard flowers into a defined place and not by the person who wrote the haiku. The idea that the emotional content of the haiku is supplied by the reader and not the writer is also another thing that comes about by another translation decision to completely ignore the spoken particle of “ya” altogether. In fact, the particle of “ya” is the thing which makes this whole haiku come together for the Japanese because it indicates where the writer is placing their emotional content in the haiku.


Toshiharu Oseko in the introduction in Volume One defines how “ya” works a particle:

It is an interjection for a strong impression, emotion, excitement and exclamation. This is used most often as a “kire-ji” (cutting word) to cut a haiku into two sections giving a pause for intensifying the impression and emotion giving more depth and the expansion of imagination.


An good example of how this is used is in Haruo Shirane’s “Claasical Japanese, A Grammar.” (Columbia University Press, 2005). It states, using a quote from the Genji Monogatari (Yugao, NKBT 14:139):

If “ya” has an exclamatory function, it is an interjectory particle. An example of “ya” as an interjectory particle is

あはれ,いと寒しや     Aware ito samushi YA.

Well (aware), it’s very (ito) cold (samushi)!


Buson is using “ya” here to intensify his emotional response to the mustard flowers in the same manner it used above to state the speaker’s reaction to the cold. Because of it, the reader picks up the cue and reacts to it the same way we would if someone had said “Ah, the mustard flowers!” Since the writers attention has been captured by it, the reader then fills in the space between the eastern horizon the moon is rising in and the western horizon the sun is falling on by realizing “oh, the mustard flowers!” and thus filling out the panoramic view that Buson expresses by placing an interjection on the flowers.


To put it a bit more succinctly,  the interjection attached to the flowers piques the reader into wondering why Buson has had a reaction to them, and then, because of it, come to understand that his emotional response was to the vast swarth of yellow. The use of “ya,” the personal emotion of the writer, is where the poetry of the haiku blooms from.


Cheryl A. Crowley in her book, “Haikai Poet Yosa Buson and the Basho” (Brill, 207), on page 278 says that this haiku was the opening hokku of a linked verse sequence and notes that “scholars have pointed out the similarity between this verse and the second of Tao Yuanming’s “Untitled Poems:”

The white sun sinks into the western slopes,
the pale moon rises over the eastern peaks.
For ten thousand leagues the light shines,
Over a great distance the sky is bright.


The allusion is quite apparent and this isn’t the only haiku Buson wrote which is indebted to Chinese poetry. Crowley also notes that there are two separate headnotes for this haiku in different sources that have “Spring scene” and “Scenery outside the capital” which “later critics have tended to ignore.” (pg 279). Anyone who has spent some time in Japan can attest that there are many amazing places where the scope and amount of the same wild flowers in bloom can be a sight to marvel at, but, considering how clear the allusion is in this haiku one has to wonder if Buson had actually witnessed this or not.


Robert Hass is an accomplished poet and his ability with language is shown in this translation:

A poem from the third of the triumvirate of classical masters, Kobayashi Issa (1763-1827) demonstrates the point:

        the snow is melting
and the village is flooded
        with children



He made a great connection that catches the idea of the melting snow, tying the water that comes out of  it together with the image of children out to play in it. However, the word “flooding””isn’t in the original at all. Rather, all Issa wrote was “full of” (ippai):


Yuki togete mura ippai no kodomo kana

And, as in the other haiku above, Hass simply ignored the exclamation that Issa included, which here is the particle of “kana.”


Toshiharu Oseko’s introduction in volume one of book on Basho explains “kana” as a “conclusive particle” that is “also used very often as a “kire-ji” like “keri” which is an auxiliary verb, cutting haiku not in the middle, but at the end, giving a strong feeling of exclamation.”


Haruo Shirane’s grammar book on page 241 states:

In the Heian period, the Nara period exclamatory final particle “kamo” was replaced by “kana,” which derived from the exclamatory final particle “ka” and the exclamatory final particle “na.”

And in separate entries on pages 239 and 240, ka” is listed as “final particle” and an “exclamation” and “na” is listed as a “final particle” that has two separate functions, one as an “exclamation” and the other as “seeking assurance, confirmation. “(The note below at the end of this article quotes the example usages the book has for them.)


So again, it is the use of an exclamation to bring the poetry into this haiku; by strengthening the the image of the village full of children with an exclamation, the reader understands what the most important part of the haiku is for Issa and now can share his wonder at the joy that the children are expressing as they play in the melting snow. Although Hass’ translation does perfectly mirror the sentiment that Issa expresses, it is important to understand that he still did add his own imagery in and ignored the verbal context that the exclamatory particle sets into the haiku.


Koretsky’s comments take everything that Hass did as being a literal translation of the haiku:

Notice how the poem sets up its first two ominous lines and then cuts, like a punchline, to its resolution. In Japanese, Issa would have had a variety – nearly 50 – ways to punctuate the end of the lines to build toward the joke, then to let us know it was time to relax and smile. Western poets, on the other hand, have about four end punctuations from which to choose. There is the dash, the ellipses, the comma, the colon.


It’s hard to understand what is “ominous” about the first two lines because it is hard to imagine that a village would be seriously flooded by the snow in it melting, but of course in the original this is something that isn’t there anyway. Nor is the break in the same place either, it is after “melting.” It is interesting to see in her list of end punctuational that she left out the exclamation point and the period, which are ones we often use in English.


This punctuation list is wherein the problem lies with this idea about the Japanese haiku always being “unresolved, (“the predominate tonal mode of the Japanophone’s ear” as Koretsky calls it.) Imagine if all you ever spoke could never come to a full punctuation stop, and that every verb you used had to be in present tense and you couldn’t express any self-emotion, then everything you said would be the ellipsis of some idea that left the resolution of what you were saying all in the listener’s mind because all you could ever present was an image of what you wanted to express. Wanting to write this style of haiku is one thing, trying to say that this is the only kind of haiku that the great Japanese masters produced is another.


The problem with haiku in the English language is that it has always been a monolith to mistaken ideas that translators have propagated about it. Robert Hass’ translations aren’t literal representations of these great writers in English, they are faint copies by someone who didn’t have the grammatical background to properly get all the poetry in them into his translations; because of this he was only left with the imagery and if there wasn’t enough imagery to fill out the poetry in the original he added in his own.


Hass wrote in his preface, “When the “hokku” became detached from linked verse….what was left was the irreducible mysteriousness of the images of themselves.” It is better to take this as an unconscious admission of his own inability to understand how  haiku, because of the imbedded grammar of kire-ji, layers poetic meaning onto the imagery. He only saw the concrete parts of haiku and never understood how these great writers were filling in the spaces around the imagery.


I’m not arguing that these three great haiku writers never wrote “unresolved” or “open ended” haiku if it was the sensibility they had at the time the wrote it, but they certainly wrote a lot more “connected” haiku with as much personal emotion and poetic technique as any conventional poetry in the west did.


The reason why they could do this is that they understood haiku as a verse form and not a single style of writing,  which is what what Hass’ translations aimed for and what Koretsky’s  article is arguing for.  The first hundred years of haiku in our language has been hampered and held down creatively by this and the wrong ideas about Japanese haiku it profligates. One has to wonder if the second century of it in our language will ever pull itself from the sand it continues to keep its head stuck into.


Note on Shirane’s examples.

On page 238 “ka” is listed as “final particle” and an “exclamation” with this example from the Kokinshu (no. 73, NKBT 8:117):

うつせみの世にも似たるか  Utsusemi no yo ni mo nitaru KA

How it resembles (nitaru ka) the ephemeral world (Utsusemi no yo)!


On page 240 “na” is listed as a “final particle” that has two separate functions, one as an “exclamation” and the other as “seeking assurance, confirmation.”

The example for the exclamation comes from the Kokinshu (Ono no Komachi, Spring 2, no. 113, NKBT 8:124):

花の色はうつりにけりな   Hana no iro wa utsurinikei NA

The colors (iro) of the cherry blossoms (hana) have faded completely (utsurinikerina)!

And for assurance and confirmation it is from the Gengi Monogatari (Yomogiu, NKBT 15:152:

ここは常陸の宮ぞかしな.  Koko wa, Hitachi no Miya zo kashi NA

This is (the residence of) the Hitachi prince, am I right?


“Kana” is still used in modern Japanese. This entry in the “A Dictionary of Intermediate Japanese Grammar” (The Japan Times, 1995) pg. 90 explains its usage:


Konshumatsu ni wa nani wo shiyo KANA

I wonder what I should do this weekend.


If you read “kana” in the Issa haiku as being spoken by a writer who isn’t looking at the scene he is describing, then it is possible to get the reading that Issa is wondering if the children are out at his old village which he has left. As Koretsky noted, Issa moved from his home in the mountains into the city at an early age so he could have been wondering about the action of this haiku instead of seeing it.

There are two extant versions of this haiku. One has “town” (町) instead of “village” (村) and the other has “town” as well as “sparrows” (雀) instead of “children” (子ども). Town indicates a more urban setting than village does so this might give credence to Issa being away from the mountains when he wrote it. It could also just prove that he just rewrote it and put kids and village in when he had made back to a rural area. You would need to know when and where Issa was at the time.


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