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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Walden by Haiku

Air Date: Week of
Professor’s Marshall’s new book that rewrites Thoreau’s Walden in haiku form.(Photo: Ian Marshall)

IN 5-7-5: Henry David Thoreau’s Walden is one of the best-known works of American nature writing. The book includes images of nature, an emphasis on simplicity, a sense of aloneness, and the use of paradox - elements that are also present in haiku poetry. Noting these similarities, Penn State/Altoona Professor Ian Marshall took Thoreau’s prose and rewrote them into a series of haiku. He tells host Jeff Young talks about his process and why he decided to do this project.


YOUNG: Henry David Thoreau's "Walden," published in 1854, is an acknowledged classic of American literature and one you probably know well. But you've probably not heard "Walden" quite like this. It's a new version by Penn State-Altoona English and environmental studies professor, Ian Marshall. Hello, Professor Marshall.


YOUNG: Professor Marshall, I'm hoping you can start us off by reading an excerpt from your "Walden".

MARSHALL: Okay, I'll keep it brief:

If I could ever find the twig
THE twig
The robin sits upon.

And you might notice that takes the form of a haiku.

YOUNG: A haiku? And the book is, "Walden by Haiku."

MARSHALL: Yep. What I did in the book is I have some haiku that I extracted from the text of "Walden."

YOUNG: And these are the actual words from Thoreau that you've taken and sort of made them more spare?


YOUNG: Why haiku? What is it about the aesthetic of haiku that you find in Thoreau?

MARSHALL: Well, let us count the ways! First, there's the aesthetic of simplicity, simplicity of language, simplicity of theme, simplicity of lifestyle. There's the focus on the seasons. Some say that haiku is not so much a kind of nature poetry, but a poetry specifically about the seasons.

And of course that's the organizing principle of "Walden."
There's a reliance on images of nature as Thoreau goes through "Walden" it's more and more focused on images of nature with less and less philosophical explanation. There's a view of nature as a realm of the unchanging and the ever changing, focusing on what's eternal in the natural world but also what's ephemeral, that's large scale and small scale. So there's a whole set of aesthetic principles of haiku that seem to be demonstrated unintentionally, of course, on Thoreau's part in "Walden".

YOUNG: Because he never read a haiku, right?

MARSHALL: No, none were available, he wouldn't have known about it. He was interested in Eastern thought, but there simply were not any translations of haiku in English at the time.

YOUNG: And yet, he arrived at a kind of similar approach to writing about nature and how he and we relate to nature.

MARSHALL: Yeah, and I think it comes from looking closely into the natural world and into seeing that all the little details of the natural world are somehow fraught with significance.

And it's sensing, too, that to live a simple life is paradoxically a very rich kind of life and a haiku specializes in that kind of paradox -- to look at simple things that are meaningful, this is a principle called wabi. And the idea is that in material poverty –life without fancy things – there's a kind of spiritual richness. I think Thoreau sensed that living there by the side of Walden Pond. I think writers of haiku sense the same thing.

YOUNG: If there's one thing that those of us who read "Walden" in high school or college remember from it it's probably: "simplify, simplify." And that's it, that's "wabi," isn't it?

Ian Marshall, professor of English at Penn State Altoona (Photo: Ian Marshall)

MARSHALL: Yep, that's exactly it. In fact, in the epigraph to my book, I took that idea of simplifying – it's the line he has in his first chapter called "Economy" where Thoreau says, "Shall we always study to obtain more of these things and not sometimes to be content with less?" Haiku is all about being content with less, because it's so few words and it's so, so short, and so small, and so simple, and yet there's something magnificent about those few simple words.

YOUNG: Can you read us a haiku that you extracted from the "Economy" section of "Walden"?

MARSHALL: No curtains
No gazers to shut out
But the sun and the moon.

YOUNG: Mm hmm.

MARSHALL: So he lived in his cabin, he didn't need any curtains because there's nobody around but the sun and the moon.

YOUNG: There's also this notion that solitude is important in haiku.

MARSHALL: Absolutely, the Japanese term for that is sabi – s-a-b-i – and of course, Thoreau has a chapter called "Solitude" and in the Japanese principle, it's sometimes translated as aloneness. And there's something melancholy about that, but there's also something beautiful because it's in moments when we're alone in a natural world that we may most be attuned to the beauty of the natural world.

YOUNG: And in many cases, the source material from "Walden," it's not that far away from the haiku that you crafted from it. I mean he was really close to haiku in some moments, in some descriptions, wasn't he?

MARSHALL: Oh, absolutely. It's because he thought that the stuff of the natural world was worth observing closely, and worth commenting on, and worth recording. And I think, like a haiku writer, they sense that we don't need to explain a whole lot, we just need to present it. And often in haiku you juxtapose two images, you set them next to each other and let them reverberate.

YOUNG: I was hoping you could give us a couple of the poems along with the excerpts from the original, from "Walden"?

MARSHALL: Sure. Here's one from Spring:
The first sparrow
Faint silvery warblings
Over bare fields.

And that seems to me the essence of that whole chapter on spring, it's the excitement! And here's the original:

"The first sparrow of spring! The year beginning with younger hope than ever. The faint, silvery warblings heard over the partially bare and moist fields from the bluebird, the song sparrow, and the redwing as if the last flakes of winter tinkled as they fell."
So you can see, I cut out stuff, but the bits I used were all there in a couple of sentences by Thoreau. So, I'm essentially stealing from him! [Laughs]

YOUNG: [Laughs] I think it's called an homage.

MARSHALL: [Laughs] Right, and I'm giving him credit.

YOUNG: Yeah, oh, sure. Professor, you also found parallels here between what Thoreau was doing at Walden and what a Japanese haiku master Basho did at a pond a century earlier.

Professor’s Marshall’s new book that rewrites Thoreau’s Walden in haiku form. (Photo: Ian Marshall)

MARSHALL: Basho was probably the most famous haiku writer of all, perhaps the most famous writer in Japanese literature. And interestingly enough probably his most famous haiku is about a pond, and of course "Walden" is about Thoreau living by the side of a pond. Basho's haiku about the pond is:

The old pond
A frog jumps
The sound of water

The point for Basho was – among many possible points – is that this is the moment when he realized haiku doesn't have to be about the spectacular, it doesn't have to be about a magnificent mountain vista or a waterfall. It can be something as simple as an old pond and a frog jumping, and in that simplicity, in that attunement to taking in the simplicity of the natural world, that's where the beauty of a haiku comes.

YOUNG: It is remarkable, these two writers, two poets separated by an ocean, a language, more than a century in time, and yet they arrived at very similar ways of trying to describe nature.

MARSHALL: Yeah, and it's about paying attention. I actually do a haiku lesson in an environmental studies class that I team-teach with a biologist. And we're interested in tracing – gee, what connections can there be between poetry and biology.

And one thing we talk about in reference to haiku is that just as a scientist begins, even before a scientist constructs a hypothesis, begins with just observing: What do you see?
Well, that's where a poet begins, too. So, you begin before you decide what things mean, you begin by observing. Why do people like Basho and Thoreau have something similar in the way that they look at the natural world? I think because they paid attention and they delighted in the attention they paid to the natural world.

YOUNG: Do you have a favorite from your haikus?

MARSHALL: Oh, I've got a bunch of them actually. Here's one from "The Bean Field":

My flute has waked echoes
Over the pond

Here's another one, it's kind of sad and lonely, but it's also – there's something very beautiful. You wonder about those echoes, is it memories; is it a yearning for a friend, a companion?

We don't know, but it's just this beautiful sort of melancholy image.

YOUNG: Have you visited Walden Pond?

MARSHALL: Yeah, yeah.

YOUNG: You know, my experience there is there's a strong sense of irony. When you go there, especially if you happen to visit on a warm weekend in the summer. It's thick with people the path is fenced off, so that you actually can't get to the pond. It's ain't like Thoreau saw it.

MARSHALL: [Laughs] That's for sure. Yeah, my initial impression when I got there was, you know, "Holy crap, what have they done to this place?" I mean look at all the people! Smell all the suntan oil.

But, I also found once you leave the public beach and start making your way around the pond, by the time you get to the other side I think I saw a birdwatcher or two, took a swim with some ducks. So, you just move away from the public beach and you can experience some of the solitude Thoreau might have felt there.

YOUNG: What do you think Henry David Thoreau might make of your book?

MARSHALL: [Laughs] Well, he was a pretty cantankerous guy, we understand. I hope he would be pleased that someone was so interested in what he had to say that they wanted to dwell on his words to this extent – to shape it into a different literary form. But, I imagine he would have been sympathetic to the goals of haiku and to the practice of haiku. People often say that his poetry wasn't as wonderful as his prose. If he'd had access to haiku, if he'd known about haiku maybe that would have been his poetic genre.

YOUNG: Professor Ian Marshall, the book is called "Walden by Haiku." Thank you very much for your time.

MARSHALL: Oh, thank you.



To learn more about Professor Ian Marshall’s work, visit his webpage.


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