The following is a guest post by Eliza Browning, an academic-year intern in Literary Initiatives.
This post is part of our “Literary Treasures” series, which highlights audio and video recordings drawn from the Library’s extensive online collections, including the Archive of Recorded Poetry and Literature. By showcasing the works and thoughts of some of the greatest poets and writers from the past 75 years, the series advances the Library’s mission to “further the progress of knowledge and creativity for the benefit of the American people.”
On May 8, 1995, Librarian of Congress James H. Billington appointed Robert Hass as the 8th Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress. About Hass, Billington said, “I am pleased to announce the selection of a first-rate poet from the American West, and a gifted poetic translator, as poet laureate for 1995-96. His poetry explores our connectedness with the natural world and its reverberations in the emotions of our usual lives. Using both art and nature as starting points, he leads us into the depths of everyday existence. He looks to Central Europe in his close collaboration with Czeslaw Milosz and to Japan in his translations of classical haiku.” Hass would go on to serve two terms as poet laureate until the spring of 1997.
On October 12, 1995, Robert Hass read his poetry alongside his poetic translations in the Montpelier Room at the Library of Congress, an event recording now digitized and available to stream in the Archive of Recorded Poetry and Literature. Introducing his work, Hass references the “illustrious predecessors” of the poet laureate by invoking the literary tradition of the Federalist Papers and the James Madison Memorial Building at the Library of Congress, proclaiming his desire to “lobby for American writers.”
Integral to Hass’s poetic process, though, is his translation of Japanese haiku and Polish poetry. In 1994, he published an anthology titled The Essential Haiku, containing his newly translated haikus by the Japanese masters Kobayashi Issa (1763-1827), Matsuo Basho (1644-1694) and Yosa Buson (1716-1783). Furthermore, Hass collaborated with the 20th-century Polish American poet Czeslaw Milosz to translate more than 80 of his poems. During this event, Hass reads his translations of Basho and Milosz’s poetry alongside his own.
“All the new thinking is about loss,” Hass’s poem “Meditation at Lagunitas” famously begins, and continues, “In this it resembles all the old thinking.” Hass suggests that his poems, lyrical meditations on the natural world, could be viewed as the “new thinking” inspired by Basho’s “old thinking.” He expresses his fascination with the “plainness of those images” in the haikus and how he “could get them in English, as plain and moving as they are.” Yet in his collaboration with Milosz, Hass demonstrates that literary translation is an act of communion rather than one-sided interpretation. The translator is often denied individual agency, viewed as an invisible conduit of language rather than an artist playing an integral role in the creative process. Instead, Hass enters into a dialogue with Basho and Milosz, bringing their words to the awareness of an American audience while drawing inspiration from their preoccupation with the natural landscape and restrained, vivid language to incorporate into his own poetic practice.
Like Basho, Hass draws on the vibrant imagery of place, particularly his home state of California. In his early poem “Palo Alto: The Marshes,” he captures the changing nature of the seasonal landscape: “In California in the early spring, there are pale yellow mornings when the mist burns slowly into day. The air stings like autumn, clarifies like pain.” The imagery of changing seasons is reminiscent of the vivid natural landscape captured in Basho’s haiku. Like Hass, Basho draws inspiration from his longing for his native landscape, writing in “Even in Kyoto”: “Even in Kyoto, hearing the cuckoos cry, I long for Kyoto.” Haikus such as “First snow” and “Spring going” chronicle the rotating seasons that symbolize the passage of time, even as Basho begins to look outward into the lives of others: “Deep autumn, my neighbor, how does he live, I wonder?” The simple, restrained natural imagery manifests in Hass’s poetry, such as in his poem “The Beginning of September”: “In the summer / peaches the color of sunrise / In the fall / plums the color of dusk / Each thing moves its own way / in the wind. Bamboo flickers, / the plum tree waves, and the loquat / is shaken.” The universal nature of these images — summer receding into fall, the wind moving through branches — is a connecting thread between Basho’s 17th- century Japan and Hass’s 20th-century California, symbolizing the constant forward motion of time and the enduring power of language.
Hass’s translations of Milosz’s poetry reveal a preoccupation with the place of the poet in the wider universe. In “Report,” Milosz writes “to exist on this earth is beyond any power to name,” claiming that “translating each other into other tongues” is one of the most profound acts of the human condition. Hass humorously notes that after years in America, Milosz still expresses his frustration with translation because of confusion between “the” and “a,” casting himself as not only Milosz’s collaborator but his intercessor. Milosz’s other poems also reflect the pared-down, symbolic language of the haiku. In “Meaning,” he writes: “When I die, I will see the lining of the world. The other side, beyond bird, mountain, sunset. The true meaning, ready to be decoded.” Later in the poem, he questions “If a thrush on a branch is not a sign, but just a thrush on the branch?” The repetition of these timeless symbols — bird, mountain, sunset — allows Milosz, like Hass and Basho, to connect his work to an enduring literary tradition while exploring the poet’s power over the translation and recreation of language.
By reading his translations of Basho and Milosz’s poems alongside his own, Hass reconfigures the role of the translator as an artist with his own intrinsic role in the creative process. He represents translation as a process of mutual collaboration, one that allows him to draw poetic inspiration for his own work. Adapting the timeless, simplistic natural imagery of haiku allows Hass to access a broader literary tradition that includes Basho and Milosz, suggesting that translation is itself a unique process of creation that preserves the resonance of poetry for centuries and generations to come.