Thursday, January 10, 2013

Basho's Poetic Development - Our Haiku Heritage

A statue of the mature poet, Matsuo Basho. But he wasn't always so venerable!

Basho the novice poet

The first poem we know of by Basho, is dated to 1663, when he was just a nineteen year old  apprentice poet himself. At this date he was still serving as a trainee samurai in the retinue of Todo Yoshitada, his local feudal lord and provincial ruler.

haru ya koshi / toshi ya yukiken / kotsugomori

I translate it, with some poetic licence, as:

How can spring have come?
This year's not even over  -
Crazy calendar.
The poem seems to me a playful expression of a young poet exploring the language and enjoying exchanges of literary wit with the other young poets in the court, including his friend and benefactor, the heir and younger Yoshitada - a boy in fact only two years older than Basho.

A cartoon of Basho by Yokoi Kinkoko, a student of Yuso Buson. Although Buson lived long after Basho, he was instrumental in the annals of haiku by leading a "Back to Basho" movement. I like that this picture is playful and familiar, rather than austere and withdrawn. Basho never lacked for friends and companions, and was evidently a very genial man. The young Basho must likewise have been fun to know.

This young noble was apparently of a delicate disposition, and more devoted to the literary arts than military arts. Of course, in Japan for centuries, literary accomplishment was at the very heart of refined behaviour, and all nobles at court were expected to have a knowledge of classical Chinese and Japanese poetry (with a heritage dating from the 700's CE) and preferably some personal facility with composing or writing verse.  It was also apparently highly desired when wooing ladies of the court, since they were very keen poets themselves and especially appreciated lovers who were as adept with poetry.

Background to Haiku

All apprentices follow the pedigree of their masters, and so it is important to this Haiku Apprentice to have a sense of the Japanese poetic heritage which preceded Basho, as well as Basho's own stylistic development, and then what came after.

Waka Tradition and Schools

Basho certainly began as a product of his time. Waka was the predominant poetic form of the Japanese elite. The word apparently means "Japanese poetry" (that is, poetry written in Japanese, as distinct from Chinese poetry, from which it was inspired). Since the 700's CE Japanese had been writing poetry in various forms, including the tanka a five-line verse characterized by phrases of syllabic length 5-7-5-7-7. These were highly regarded and anthologies were compiled under the order of successive Japanese Emperor's (and naturally, these included works  purported to be by the enlightened Emperors themselves, such as Emperor Ojin , one of whose poems is the very first of the first volume of the classic Japanese poetic anthology Manyoshu, ("The Collection of Ten Thousand Leaves") which dates to about 759CE.)

Writing poetry in this style was clearly an important way for young nobles to impress the court: by displaying in a succinct and preferably an elevated, or at least an entertaining or witty way, a wide knowledge of classical literature; and especially if they could include allusions to famous poems of the past, or other historical or mythological content. This is much the same as the chivalric poems of Anglo-Saxon heritage, in which knights and ladies behaved always courteously, and spoke only in refined words, and sought to fulfil noble tasks and quests . For instance a work such as the Quest of the Holy Grail,  which is  a story full of allusion and reference to Biblical events, theological writings, and traditional folk myths, all worked in a novel way into the narrative.

Basho the Teimon Apprentice

This poem by Basho is just such a display. According to David Landis Branhill, in his early poetry Basho wrote under the influence of the Teimon school. This school was established by Matsunana Teitoku (1571-1653) and "drew on the imagery, diction, and elegant beauty of the court tradition while relying on verbal wit to amuse the reader". Poetry in this era was indeed an apprenticeship, and like martial arts, students were inducted into secrets and only gradually learned techniques from their masters. And Teimon was a prestigious school of poetry. The young Lord Yoshitada was given his instruction in this style by Kitamura Kigin (1624-1705), based in the Imperial capital, Kyoto, and himself a student of the founders Yasuhara Teishitsu and Matsunaga Teitoku. And Basho in turn evidently absorbed the teachings, presumably through his friend.

So, according to the notes to this poem in Branhill (#1 - BH - DLB), the poem is a witty commentary on an oddity of the then lunar calendar of Japan, in which owing to the solar (and seasonal) year becoming out of sync with moon cycles, on occasion spring starts a few days before the lunar New Year. Branhill identifies allusions in the verse to a poem by Ariwara Motokata (888-953CE) from the first imperial anthology Kokin Wakashu:
"During the old year / spring has come. / The remaining days: / should we call them / last year / or this year?" (see here)
as well as to a verse from the 10th century Tales of Ise:
"Did you come / or did I go? / I can't remember / was it dream or reality? was I asleep or awake?

Basho and haikai no rendo

Clearly young Basho was something of a verbal prodigy. The year after this poem was written two of Basho's poems were included in an anthology. And in 1665 Basho and Yoshitada participated in a renga party which had been arranged to write a hyakun - a 100-verse linked renga. Yoshitada's teacher Kigin participated by contributing a verse. In the final work, 18 verses judged worthy of inclusion were written by Basho.

The next year, however, Basho was shaken by the unexpected death of his friend and patron, and left his position with the feudal clan. He apparently moved to Kyoto where,  according to his later disciples,  he was taught classics under Kigin, and was fully inducted into the Teimon school in 1674.

It would seem renku or renga was the particular poetic style Basho excelled at in this time, and later in his life when comparing himself to the great poets, he acknowledged himself as standing out in poetic excellence only in leading and participating in haikai no renga
He is quoted as saying,
“Many of my followers can write hokku as well as I can. Where I show who I really am is in linking haikai verses."
The "Hokku" he refers to is the term used to describe the 3-line opening verse of a renga. It was written with a syllabic pattern 5-7-5, had a cutting word and a seasonal reference, and is therefore the direct forerunner of the freestanding verse explored later by Basho, and known in his time as haikai, and to us, after Shiki's time, as haiku.

Renku or haikai no renga is fundamentally a collaborative poem in which poets take turns composing verses. The cycle alternating verses were linked according to various complicated rules of association and literary wit, and up to 100 stanzas. Like the waka, renku had a long classical heritage. In the Teimon school, these works were composed with the same aristocratic and aesthetic sensibilities as the waka.

Basho the Danrin Apprentice

However by the Edo period (1603-1864), prosperity and a rising middle class opened literacy to masses of people outside the aristocracy. And these people took the traditional form, loosened the rules for their own parties and gatherings, and essentially popularized the form.

One proponent of this change was Nishiyama Soin (1605-1682) who founded the Danrin School. This name means "Talkative forest" and emphasized freedom from classical constraints and advanced literary study, focusing instead on  using plain language, everyday subjects, and humour. Its members explored people's daily life for sources of playfulness, though they were often accused of ending up with mere frivolity.

The result was often a reputation for vulgarity and coarseness. 

Basho moved to Edo (Tokyo) around the age of 30, and was invited to join this group in 1675. Apparently the freedom of Soin's style was exhilarating to Basho, and he remained deeply respectful of Soin, even though he eventually grew dissatisfied with this also. He wrote extensively at this time, and had a school of disciples and students of his own who supported him. His poems of the period reflect a playful tone and literary freedom.

But as every apprentice strives to become their own master, so Basho as a professional poet was striving to make poetry which matched his own developing aesthetic, his own spirit.

Basho - Master of Shofu

In 1680 Basho's disciples built their master a small house, near a river in what was then a somewhat isolated location in Fukagawa.

A contemporary sketch of Basho's house in Fukugawa
This woodblock print by Hiroshige, included in his 100 Famous Views of Edo series, is of Basho's hut. It is already famous and a site for pilgrimages at the time of Hiroshige, almost 200 years after Basho's death.


Another disciple gave him a gift of a Basho - a banana tree. This was a very uncommon plant in Japan, and although the climate prevented it from ever bearing fruit, the large leaves provided umbrella like protection from the sun and then the rain. It so delighted Basho that he took his enduring pen-name precisely from the name of this plant.  

A "basho" - banana tree


During this period there was critical development toward Basho's mature style. Partly there were the several years of writing and experimenting under the influence sparked by the lessons he learned from Soin - to appreciate the value of poetry of the humble and unpretentious imagery of everyday life. But his own sense of dissatisfaction with worldliness, perhaps even loneliness, ultimately lead him to the type of poetry for which he is remembered. He detached the hokku of renga - a form which over decades of practice he had developed an intuitive feel for- and filled it with his own wabi (melancholy) and sabi (simplicity and naturalness) and used the form to write freestanding lyrical poems of simplicity, authenticity, openness to nature, and search for inspiration. So different were these from anything previously seen in Japanese poetry, it was given its own name - Shofu: "Basho style". 

Basho the Zen Apprentice

The Japanese culture is imbued with the aesthetic of wabi-sabi - itself derived from concepts in Zen Buddhism. It acknowledges and accepts transience and imperfection, and celebrates the beauty in the imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete.

Basho certainly had recent experiences of impermanence: in 1682 his house burned down. For some time he was forced to reside with friends. Then in 1683 his mother died, and he was severely afflicted with grief when he travelled to his hometown to pay his respects.

Basho is well known to have studied Zen - and according to American Zen writer Robert Aitken he even learned and practiced Zen meditation with a contemporary master, Butcho Osho. Barnhill says he became a Zen lay monk in 1679, and in his travel writings he records that he shaved his head and travelled wearing the garb of a monk. However according to Reichhold he declined to take vows, because he was not prepared to give up his poetry.

Whatever the degree of official involvement in the Zen form of Buddhism, Basho certainly took aspects of Zen spirituality into his life, and naturally it has therefore infused through his poetry. However haiku is not a Buddhist doctrine or even a Zen art-form. And there is evidence in his poems that Basho himself warned his disciples against making their poetry into Zen discipline.

Basho the Traveller

A final and possibly most profound influence on his stylistic development was the decision in 1684 to undertake a long journey for poetry. At the time, travel was extremely hazardous, and Basho was no longer a young man - aged 44 - and apparently depressed and sick of the world. According to his own account, "The Records of an Exposed Skeleton", he expected to perish on the way - a poetic death:

Following the example of the ancient priest who is said to have travelled thousands of miles caring naught for his provisions and attaining the state of sheer ecstasy under the pure beams of the moon, I left my broken house on the River Sumida in the August of the first year of Jyoko among the wails of the autumn wind.

Determined to fall
A weather-exposed skeleton
I cannot help the sore wind
Blowing through my heart
(Translation Yuasa)

And here is the first example of a new style of his writing - the travel journal. His poems stand free from any renga, but are interspersed among his travel commentary which became known as haibun. Remarkably, Basho walked thousands of kilometres over the next few years in several long journeys all over Japan, and recorded in what became bestselling travel diaries. His longest and most profound was the Journey to the Deep North - a two and a half year journey starting in 1689. Throughout all these travels, Basho encountered nature, but he also encountered people - ordinary people, poets, priests, rulers and local celebrities. The effect of this continuous exposure to new people, new ideas, new scenery; the immersion and contact with the sites and actual places of poetic and cultural significance; and his continuous self-examination and self-reflection in the form of his meditative practices and his commentary writing, all worked together to produce his most developed style and his most highly regarded poems.

Basho the Universal Poet

Haiku, in the Basho style, is precisely that - a style of poetry developed  by the genius of one man, through the lifetime of his study, practice, and all the parts of his unique personal journey. But in that journey and through that style, he wrote poetry that can touch every human. Because he stayed so true to nature, and to the authentic experiences of life, his poetry remains timeless, and perennially fresh, continually relevant, regardless of the reader's religion, spirituality, or even their absence thereof. While ever people strive to make sense of life, the poetry of Basho can breathe in them like a kindred spirit. And because it is never preaching a doctrine, never claiming to be "giving the answers", it can never become false or out-dated.

As apprentices, we need always to stay grounded in the facts of the lives of our teachers, and the realities of their poems; not the myths, not the "brands", and especially not the agendas of people - even well-meaning disciples - who would hang Basho like a banner over their particular barrows of religion, culture, or even literature.

And most importantly I believe a true apprentice of the Shofu will not believe they must confine themselves to the style and techniques of their master - even as great a master as Basho - but will use the form and techniques they have learned, then mix it with their own spirit, their own life, to craft poetry that is true, and which matches their own individual situation and needs. For this, it would seem, is what truly reflects an understanding of Shofu - true  Basho-style.

Basho could be speaking to us when he wrote to his follower, Kyoriku:
"Do not seek the traces of the ancients; seek what they sought"

Basho composing poetry underneath a banana tree


Copyright © 2013 The Haiku Apprentice

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