Wednesday, February 13, 2013

A Daily Diet of Poetry

A poem by Basho, from his first travel journal, Records of a Weather-Exposed Skeleton:

imo arau onna / Saigyo nara ba / uta yoman
                potato-washing women:
                were Saigyo here,
                he'd compose a waka
                (Trans. David Landis Branhill)
                (# 200 - JR; #125 - DLB)

This poem raises the very interesting topic of the poet,“Saigyo”, and provides an opportunity to discuss another important lesson for haiku apprentices - the process of "conversing" with poets of the past, in their poetry. For none of us as haiku poets stands in isolation. We all take our place in a living tradition, even while we make our own unique contributions. Basho, as we shall see, was continually providing himself with a diet of poetry by those he considered his masters. 
12th Century poet and hermit, Saigyo, travelled extensively through Japan and wrote nature lyrics
In his travel journals (particularly with a good commentary) we haiku apprentices can gain some insight into the scope of Basho's poetic inspirations and his deep engagement with poets of the past - Classical Chinese as well as Japanese poets. 


The Journeys of Basho - Poetic Pilgrimages

For instance, the setting for the poem above, Basho was already on his first poetic pilgrimage - a journey he states was commenced in a "state of sheer ecstasy under the pure beams of the moon", following the example of "the ancient priest". According to Yuasa in "The Narrow Road to the Deep North and Other travel Sketches" (from whom the translation comes) this is a reference to a poem by Chinese priest and poet, Komon (1127-1179). Shortly after he styles his mode of travel on the description in a poem called Morning Departure by another Chinese poet, Toboku (803-52). He arrives at a valley where the famed travelling poet Saigyo had built a hermitage (1118-1190) and wrote the poem first quoted. Later her visits Mt Yoshino, a site famed for its cherry blossoms and another location where Saigyo resided and wrote poetry. 

A "stunning view" from Mt Yoshino

Saigyo's hut (or perhaps a reproduction!)
"The remains of Saigyo's thatched hut are off to the right side of the inner temple, reached by continuing a few hundred paces on a woodcutter's path. The hut faces a steep valley with a stunning view. The "clear trickling water" is unchanged from old times, and still, even now, the drops drip down.
                dew drips drips
                wanting to rinse away
                this dust of the world"
                                (Trans. Reichhold, #206 - JR)

Mt Yoshino, near Nara - Saigyo's favourite retreat

Here again Basho is in a poetic conversation, this time with a work by Saigyo himself:
                trickling down
                pure spring water falls
                over mossy rocks
                not enough to draw up
                for this hermit's life"
                                (Trans. Reichhold)

Likewise in the other travel sketches, and especially in "The Narrow Road to the Deep North." Many of his poems not only mention by name such inspiring poets as Saigyo, but he frequently alludes to their works in his haibun commentary and his own poems. 

Conversing With Basho

And poets following Basho have likewise continued the conversation. For instance, Basho's classic "Frog" poem, as we discussed in the previous post, may have been influenced by a work by his exemplar, Saigyo.

                A familiar old pond
                Suddenly a frog jumps in
                The sound of wetness
                                (Trans. Strider)

And in turn, Basho's own poem was the "jumping off point" for innumerable others, such as these, by Sengai Gibon (1750-1837):

                old pond-
                something has PLOP!
                jumped in
                old pond-
                Basho jumps in
                the sound of water
                if there were a pond
                I'd jump in
                for Basho to hear!
                                (Trans. Stephen Addiss from "The Art of Haiku" p174)
Note though, that for all their humour, these verses were written by an acknowledged Zen master, and according to Zen scholar D.T. Suzuki they were not parodies but Zen-inspired teaching commentaries. It seems they were intended as precisely the sort of Zen-koan I mentioned in my previous post.

It is precisely though continual study, and deeper our engagement with haiku poems, that we begin to carry the "haiku mind" with us through life. Ponds no longer are "just" ponds. Bird song is no longer "just" a bird singing. We are charged with a repertoire of inspirational associations that make our life richer, and in turn frequently inspire our own poetic responses.  Margaret McGee in "Haiku The Sacred Art" writes of this poetic "conversation":

"When you carry their words out into your world, the “old poets” have the chance to share their experiences with you in the context of your own life. Writing your haiku response, you join your experiences with theirs, walking and talking in the company of a sympathetic and understanding friend."
                (Margaret D. McGee (2011-01-05). Haiku—the sacred art (Kindle Locations 1721-1723). Jewish Lights Publishing. Kindle Edition. )

Here is just such a personal response to a pond, which joins my conversation with Basho:

                Watching this old pond
                Only see clouds reflected;
                The sound of raindrops

A Well Balanced Diet!

Basho teaches us very strongly, through his own example, that a haiku apprentice needs a daily diet of good poetry to nourish our soul, to inspire our creativity, to broaden our awareness of subjects for poems, and to deepen our own observations of the world through entering into and sharing the encounters and emotional responses of other great poets. We also pick up - without perhaps realizing it - a sense of their poetry's rhythm and style.

I recall in senior high school, studying the works of the English Romantic poet, John Keats. His mellifluous language, with its iambic pentameter, and rhymes soaked into my  brain, and I found myself spontaneously writing my own verses in that elevated style. Here is a fragment I composed and have never forgotten:

                Perchance I heard a rumour of a wreck
                Which one day a friend exploring found
                So I intrigued set upon a trek
                To find this relic of the Barren Ground

Recently I have been watching Kenneth Branagh's production of Shakespeare's Hamlet, and again I find myself falling under the spell of Shakespeare's language, and the measure and rhythms of his blank verse.

It is a natural human response - we become better at any art, any skill, through exposure to those better at it than ourselves. We will become better poets through continual exposure to great poets. And in the haiku tradition, we have no lesser authority than Basho himself, commending to us what was his own practice. According to Jane Reichhold:

"He constantly strove to remain in an emotional and intellectual position where the poems would come to him. This meant immersing himself in the study of other writers ... Basho reportedly said that any day he did not read the old masters of the waka form, thistles formed in his mouth"
                (Reichhold "Basho" p12)

What a delightful turn of phrase. So accurate, so pointed. And so true. My own daily haiku discipline suffers whenever I go more than a few days without perusing some quality poetry. It is not necessary to always read haiku, of course. Basho evidently refers to waka by Saigyo as one type of poem he studied daily. But he also evidently continued to read and study the classic poems of the Chinese tradition, as is shown through the number of allusions and references found by commentators and translators of his work. The books by David Landis Barnhill and Yuasa I find  particularly illuminating in this regard. Interestingly, Basho - the great innovator of haiku (stand-alone hokku) - did not just read hokku , but was deeply familiar with the classics of waka and Chinese poems.


Saigyo - A Poet's Poet

Now who was this Saigyo, so much admired by the great Basho?
Saigyo was a poet from the 12th century, an aristocrat who in his early 20's left the Imperial Court at Kyoto to become Buddhist monk and hermit, and who thereafter lived in isolation to meditate and write poetry. He also travelled extensively to locations of classical literary fame, and left a body of poetry of lyrical natural beauty.

There is much about Saigyo that Basho would have resonated with. Saigyo was - like Basho - born into a noble family of Samurai, and he too abandoned his aristocratic prospects - though Saigyo did actually become a monk. His original name was Satō Norikiyo, but he later took the pen name Saigyo which means "western journey" - a reference to the teachings about Buddhist paradise.

He withdrew to the mountains and made himself a hut for a hermitage where he undertook meditation as well as poetry. According to Wikipedia this was an era an era of civil war and strife, as well as loss of faith in Buddhism as a means of salvation. As a result many of his poems convey a sense of melancholy, or sabi. His dates (1118 - 1190) and his aristocratic heritage put his writing in the era of Classical Waka (Japanese poetry). His verses are written in what we today would identify as tanka style with 5-7-5-7-7 syllable pattern. He appears to have been a poet not only well acquainted with the classics, but dissatisfied with the literary and aesthetic experience that comes from merely reading these classic works; and likewise he was not satisfied with merely viewing paintings of famous subjects and landscapes - he wanted to truly know the subjects of those poems. So as well as becoming a Buddhist Monk, Saigyo became a traveller and made his own poetic pilgrimage around Japan, composing his own verses at the actual sites of ancient cultural import.

We know from Basho's own comments that Saigyo he was a favourite of Basho. He certainly makes a number of references to Saigyo, not just in the verse quoted at the start of this post, but also in letters and other writings. And in the introductory passage of another travel journal - The Records of a Travel-Worn Satchel - he lists Saigyo as the one exemplar who achieved real excellence in the art of "traditional poetry" (waka).

Basho also appears to have modeled aspects of his own life on that of Saigyo. In an article on Saigyo, David Landis Branhill suggests Basho may even have made his longest journey, later published as The Narrow Road to the Deep North, as a pilgrimage to mark the 500th anniversary since Saigyo's death.
Contemplating Mt Fuji. This could be Saigyo - or Basho!


Poems by Saigyo

Sadly, there is not a great deal of Saigyo's poetry in English translation. I intend to purchase "Awesome Nightfall. The Life, Times, and Poetry of Saigyo" by William LaFleur, but I have also found a few sources for poems on the internet, quoted below.  Unfortunately the translators for most of these are not acknowledged.

Saigyo is renowned in Japan for his great devotion to cherry blossoms and according to some writers.
                "When one hears the name Saigyo, cherry blossoms come to mind.
                Indeed, Saigyo composed an unusual number of poems
                about these spring flowers during the course of his life."

Apparently Saigyo wrote some 230 verses in praise or admiration for cherry blossoms, and the following lyrics capture some of that beauty and melancholy.
kozo no shiori no
michi kaete
mada minukata no
hana o tazunen

Shinto Torii at Mt Yoshino
The pathway I walked
when last year I made my way
into Yoshino—
I abandon now to visit
blossoms I have not yet seen

                (Traditional Japanese Poetry: An Anthology. Trans. Steven D. Carter. Stanford, CA: University Press, 1991. p160.)
(Is this the woodcutter's path Basho mentions in his haibun and poem?Another conversation?)
Mizu no oto wa
sabishiki io no
tomo nare ya
mine no arahshi no
taema taema ni

Mt Yoshino - spectacularly beautiful!

The sound of the water
is my companion
in this lonely hut
in lulls between
the storms on the peak

Hana chirade
tsuki wa kumoran
yo nariseba
mono o omowan
waga mi naramashi

My Yoshino temple in bloom

Were the world without
falling blossoms
or the clouded moon,
I could no longer live
in sad longing.

nagamu tote
hana ni mo itaku
chiru wakere koso

Cherry blossoms in full bloom at Mount Yoshino, Nara, Japan

Gazing at them, immersed,
I become so intimate
with the blossoms;
and with the falling away
and scattering comes sorrow.

Reading such verses, one gets a sense of the resonance between his mood and that we often encounter in Basho.

Saigyo's death also is poetic. Recalling the meaning of the name he chose - Western Journey - it is striking that just as many Christians traditionally viewed the direction East as symbolic of the resurrection of Christ, and built churches facing that way. Many Buddhists of the Amida tradition view the direction West as the symbolic route to paradise and many wrote their final wish was to die facing west. Saigyo, however, was not so doctinaire. He wrote a poem and achieved his own death wish, to die lying under a cherry tree.

Negawaku wa
hana no shita nite
haru shinan
sono kisaragi no
mochidzuki no koro

Let me die in spring
under the blossoming trees,
let it be around
that full moon
of Kisaragi month

According to a Japanese blogger:
The time of full moon of Kisaragi month (February) meant the anniversary of the death of Buddha, ‘February 15th in the lunar calendar’. ‘February 15th’ was March 30th (2010), March 11th (2009), and March 22nd (2008) in a new calendar. Sometimes it would be the beginning of March or April. Thus it isn’t so easy to see cherry trees in full bloom on ‘February 15th‘. He wished to die around the same time as the Buddha’s anniversary under the petals fluttering down. Did he get his desire? He passed away on ‘February 16th‘ (just perfect!) in1190.


Even Poetic Geniuses Learn From Others

As haiku apprentices I think it is very helpful for us to remember even the greatest masters had favourite poets and learned from the poetry of others.

My translation of Basho's Road to the Deep North by Yauada, contains extensive notes to the text. It is invaluable, and extremely illuminating, how many classical poems are referenced and alluded to by Basho throughout his great work. He was far from being an individualistic genius poet in the sense that English-speakers have come to expect of great poets ever since age of the Keats, Byron, Shelley and the Romantic poets in England. Certainly he was a genius, and certainly he was individualistic, but far from rejecting  the poetry that went before, Basho lived and thrived on it. It provided the background for his genius to work with.


The Joy of Haiku - Reading Aloud

Another aspect of Basho's advice to us - to read continually the works of exemplary poets of the past - is that we should at least sometimes read them aloud.
Basho and his contemporaries all recited their haiku. After all, these were poems to share, and haiku arose from the practice of haikai no renga, an activity conducted by groups of poets in which recitation and inventing new verses was done aloud. Recall that Basho modestly claimed that it was in such linking verse activity that his own poetic talent lay.

If possible, as well as reading aloud English versions by different translators, it might be good for an enthusiastic haiku apprentice to learn to speak aloud the Japanese of the originals. Many anthologies, and websites, have the romanized versions of poems by Basho, Buson, and Issa. It is a simple task to learn to pronounce them, even without learning to speak Japanese. The benefit will be to gain insight into the rhythm and sound of our haiku masters. Basho, we know, was rarely satisfied with his "first effort" but continually revised his works - even over years. He and the other great haiku masters took great pains in constructing their poems, and the sound and syllables are often part of the effect they sought to achieve.

I have read works on haiku which assert rhyme and assonance - mainstays of traditional poetry in English - have no place in haiku. These writers clearly belong to the minimalist "dribble of prose" school of English haiku. But this is patently false, and reading aloud the Japanese poems of masters gives me a fuller sensual experience of their aesthetic creation (not to mention their humour).

For instance the prolific contemporary of Basho, Ihara Saikaku, who wrote tens of thousands of poems, and was renowned for astounding output in "poetry marathons."

kokoro koko ni
naki ka nakanu ka

Rakusan Tsuchiya (Japanese, 1896-1976), Cuckoo and Bracken (Early Summer), 1930

was I paying no attention
or did it not yet sing?
the cuckoo
                (Trans. Addiss)

Addiss suggests the birdsong-like repetition of sounds which make up the riddle-half opening of the poem, are answered not only by the "answer", but audibly by the fact that the singing stops there. A truly brilliant poetic effect; the aesthetic construction of the words and sounds echoing the meaning  - but completely lost in English translation.

And this one by Basho:

horohoro to
yamabuki chiru ka
taki no oto
Yamabuki - Yellow Mountain Roses

yellow mountain roses,
are you falling in rhythm?
the sound of the waterfall

                (Trans. Addiss)

The onomatopoeic "horohoto" is the sound of falling petals, but when rendered aloud it seems to match the sound of a waterfall.
Horohoto - melodiously dropping petals


Poems from our hearts, and our mouths

Lest thistles grow in our mouths, let us fill them instead with poems of our predecessors. Let us sound out and feel their rhythms and rhymes.
And then lets see how easily our own poems spring forth, in all the moments of our lives.

Copyright © 2013 The Haiku Apprentice

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