I only just got around to opening that Workshop newsletter they send around sometimes, and there's something rather good: Susan interviewed Robert Hass back in March.
S.M.: It seems to me that another one of the places you're rooted in is Haiku. Could you speak a little about your attraction to that form?
R.H.: That's another interesting part of the thing you were saying about going either through the self or the negation of the self, because though there's an imaginary perceiver in every haiku, it's axiomatic that they're not first person lyrical poems. That is, a Japanese reader coming to them doesn't necessarily expect a poem by Basho to have as its point of view, Basho. It's part of the reading of the poem to discover "Oh, this must be a woodsman, or this must be a woman getting water from the well who's noticing the fish in the well." If you read through the history of haiku interpretations, and there are a couple of English books of commentary, you find that people are all over the place about it, including about who the speaker is. So there's that formal level at which the I in the poem (it would be very unusual in a poem that the first person pronoun would be used in the first place) would signal the very strong presence of the I position but not necessarily the autobiographical poet's I. At the core of Buddhist thought, and it's really the antithesis of a certain kind of Christianity, there's nobody there. There is no self to have that experience, in more or less the way Stevens came to it at the end of "The Snow Man." "Nothing himself beholds / Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is...." That "nothing himself" gesture, which is a gesture toward panic and the void in the European imagination, is a gesture toward releasing the soul from the self in the Asian tradition.
S.M.: And not a gesture that would necessarily engender panic?
R.H.: No. If one actually experienced it, not the literary experience of it, it might well engender panic and no serious writing in that tradition pretends that non-attachment is easy. The annoying feeling of moral purity that certain Zen students, American Zen students, give off has to do with having given up the self without a struggle. You sense in the writing of people who have actually been there that of course it's terrifying, and it would be terrifying to all these postmodernists to be stripped of their wallets and driver's licenses, which prove they're a person with an address. To spiritually let go of that, as a matter of fact, is either going to be anguishing or scary. In the great poets of that tradition, like Tu Fu and Basho, you can point to places where even the anguished person who's letting go of that stuff knows that it's not the person that's letting go. There's one step back from that. Basho has a poem that goes, "Teeth sensitive to the grit of sand in lettuce, I'm getting old." Somebody is looking at that guy saying that, something is looking at that guy and letting it go. Toward the end of his life, Basho felt that he should give up poetry and turn toward spiritual things, but he couldn't do it. His last poem, written when he was sick and on the road, goes "As for dream, it wanders the withered fields." Dream here stands for the unconscious, the imagination hunting out meaning, pleasure, what's sexy and transforming at the same time, whatever that voice is in you that stirs up the poem. I'm told "wander" in the Japanese doesn't translate as "wanders aimlessly," but more as "roams." There's a sense of purpose but a shrug in it too. It's the nature of what we are to be out hungrily doing that, though there's something in us that isn't that, that notices that. There's another version of this in Surrealism, of letting accident and collage do a similar kind of work with detachment. The connection between language and the self is very powerful, so there's a natural connection between getting rid of the self and getting rid of language, which is a problem for poetry. Beckett is the great teacher of this riddle. If you really want to get rid of the self, why do you keep saying so? As in, if the aim of my poetry is to purge itself of referentiality, a good way to do that would be to shut up. Then we could give MFAs in silence.