What is haiku? Who was Bashō? This paper employs post-structural literary theories to explode these seemingly simple questions. By looking at a haibun and two haiku of Bashō’s, I will show that how we answer questions about haiku says more about ourselves and our differences than the original, unknowable reality—especially when we are looking at translations.
Japanese is a subtle language, and haiku are notoriously difficult to translate. In this paper, Baker will examine treatments of Bashō’s oku no hosomichi and two haiku (kare eda ni / karasu no tomari keri / aki no kure and furuike ya / kawazu tobikomu / mizu no oto) in English to show some of the widely varying interpretations of Bashō and his work, from Robert Aitken’s and DT Suzuki’s zen-centered understanding to the more literary-critical approach of scholars like Kawamoto Koji and David Barnhill and English-language poets like Sam Hamill.
After summarizing the main approaches and the conclusions they reach, he will briefly discuss the main points of several related post-structural theories, among them Julia Kristeva’s Intertextuality, Roland Barthes’ semiotics and “death of the author,” and Stanley Fish’s interpretive communities.Although these theories vary on some points, their overall thrust is that the readers of a “text” are at least as important as its author, and play a much larger role in creating its meaning than is generally assumed. They also suggest that readers, through interpreting a text, create new versions of that text for other readers.
The remainder of the paper will return to Bashō’s haibun and haiku and their English-language incarnations. Baker will use the theories above to show how readers’ backgrounds and interests inform their understandings of Bashō and his work, sometimes to an extreme degree, and discuss some other problems of translation. He will also argue that these multiple interpretations are a strength—not a weakness—as they allow haiku to speak to a far larger audience than they would if only a single, unambiguous reading were possible.
Stewart C Baker is an academic librarian, haikuist, and speculative fiction writer. His fiction and poetry has appeared in COSMOS Online, Acorn, Frogpond, Heron's Nest, and Modern Haiku, among other magazines. Stewart has lived in England, Japan, and the United States, and now lives in Southern California with his wife and two sons--although if anyone asks, he'll say he's from the Internet.