An Interview with Jane Hirshfield,
Co-translator of the Ink Dark Moon

by Lequita Vance

First published in Woodnotes #8, Winter 1991, pages 14–16. See Jane Hirshfield’s Wikipedia page.

Jane, thank you for taking the time for this interview, and congratulations on the success of The Ink Dark Moon and the awards it has brought you. It is interesting to me that you, a mainstream poet of notable rank, decided to put the labor and art into translating two women poets of ancient Japan. Why did you translate the love poems of Ono No Komachi and Izumi Shikibu?

The briefest answer to your question would be that I translated Komachi and Shikibu simply because I wanted to read them, but perhaps a little more background might be in order. . . . The idea for The Ink Dark Moon first occurred to me when I was taking courses in Japanese literature in translation at Princeton in 1971. Though only a handful of these women’s poems was available at the time in anthologies, I was deeply struck by their power, beauty, and resonance. Since I was surrounded by serious language students, I thought I had only to sit back and wait for a larger body of work to come into English, but fifteen years later, it hadn’t happened. I had gone on with my own writing, and was given a year’s support in 1985 as a Guggenheim Fellow; then, coincidentally, the editor of Yellow Silk [a journal of erotic arts] introduced me to Mariko Aratani, a Japanese-born woman who also loved Heian-era poetry. We began working together to do a few poems for the magazine, but enjoyed the process so much that we decided to continue over the course of the year.

Those of us in the haiku community do not find a widespread audience for haiku, renga, and tanka, the forms of poems that appear in The Ink Dark Moon. Can you suggest why your book has received such wide support? The paperback is in its second printing, I believe, and the hardback is sold out.

It’s always difficult to know the reason why some books find their audience and others do not, so I can only guess about this one. The most obvious explanation, of course, is the genius of Komachi and Shikibu. They are two of the foremost poets of a great literary tradition, and the value of their work has stood the test of a thousand years of reading, so it shouldn’t surprise us too much that even in translation that genius shines through. Also, the book itself was lucky in having found good publishers: the first edition was acquired by an editor at Macmillan who fell instantly in love with it after he saw it somewhat by accident (his specialty was business and reference books), and the expanded paperback version from Vintage exists because another editor read it and believed in its potential. (Now some of the poems are scheduled to appear in Glamour Magazine—a readership of two million—now that is mainstream. . . .)

But the fact is, traditional Japanese poetry is unique in its poetic strategies: the use of the imagery of the natural world and fairly simple statements to embody and convey a precise instance of human experience. The feelings and situations of the poems are often deeply complex, yet they are accessible even to non-readers of poetry because of the particular way in which they are put forth. Also, of course, the concerns of these poems are universal: love, the fleeting nature of time and human life, realizing one’s connection with the earth, religion. These concerns do not change across language, time, or culture, and people recognize their own experience in Komachi and Shikibu’s words. This is the work of all great poets—to both reflect upon and expand human life.

What part did Mariko Aratani play in the translations?

As you can guess from my earlier answer, Mariko is the language expert of our collaboration. In our meetings, she would give me a word-for-word literal version maintaining the order and grammar of the original, and also a great deal of background information about specific words, aspects of Japanese culture, et cetera. Sometimes, we would also need to try to figure out together the actual meaning of the poems, since it is not always clear even to scholars. I would go home with my notes and attempt to make successful poems in English, and she would recheck these at each stage for accuracy. We probably made rough versions of over seven hundred poems; I then took charge of making the final selections and ordering, and wrote the introduction, appendix on translating, and notes—though always with Mariko’s assistance, of course.

Most of us involved in contemporary English language haiku and related forms look to Blyth, Henderson, and a few others as authorities and examples in our history. Which western experts did you read and find helpful in the research for your book?

There’s a selected bibliography in the paperback containing about twenty books, but briefly, my deepest gratitude goes to Arthur Waley, Donald Keene, Robert Brower, and Earl Miner, and of course Kenneth Rexroth for his translations; for students of haiku, I can’t recommend Robert Aitken’s A Zen Wave: Bashō’s Haiku and Zen strongly enough; for background on the classical period, Ivan Morris’s The World of the Shining Prince.

Your translations, in my mind, are masterful and clearly represent what I feel is the intent of the poets. My hope is that The Ink Dark Moon will help overall in the acceptance of and respect for this type of poetry. How do you see haiku, renga, and tanka in respect to mainstream western poetry, and where do you think its future lies?

It seems to me that traditional Japanese poetic forms are in fact quite deeply accepted and integrated within the mainstream. You can find haiku or renga included in an extraordinary variety of books—Richard Wilbur’s Collected Poems has “Sleepless at Crown Point,” for example [“All night, this headland / Lunges into the rumpling / Capework of the wind.”], and Czeslaw Milosz’s contains the wonderful meditation “Reading the Japanese Poet Issa,” along with many haiku-like moments; and I suspect that the mainstream future of the more explicit use of Japanese forms lies along the path of integration—poets who mix haiku, renga, and tanka in with their work in the same way that sonnets and sestinas are now embraced as parts of the common poetic heritage. The task of those who know Japanese forms through long study is to try to convey their true nature to the culture at large, so that a haiku is not understood as only a seventeen-syllable image but as an entire mode of perception, a new window of language opening into the world.

Thank you and all the best to you, not just with The Ink Dark Moon, but with your own poetic voice.