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Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Japan's Haiku Master Bashō

Living in the city of Ohtawara-shi in Tochigi-ken, Japan, I spent a lot of time at the Bashō Haiku museum in nearby Kurobane, that was, when I was there between 1990-1993, a separate village, but has now become a part of that city.

The photo above is taken by my self in the Spring of 1991 on a bicycle trip with Sakuyama Chu Gakko (Sakuyama Junior High School) when they undertook the class trek of "Search For Bashō." The photo is of a mounted Bashō with faithful companion Sora walking beside him. Me... I was there 302 years afterwards.

Bashō Matsuo (surname first) (松尾 芭蕉) is perhaps the best known of the haiku poets.

He is perhaps best known for the following haiku poem - one that I was exposed to here in Toronto when I was just eight-years-old when we had to write our own haiku for an afternoon class. lacking imagination back then, my poem also included a frog, as Bashō's did:

kawazu tobikomu
mizu-no oto.

It translates to:

Breaking the silence of an ancient pond,
a frog jumped into the water -
a deep resonance.

Even in English that sounds cool.

A Haiku, in case you are unaware, is a three-line poem with 17 syllables... with the first and third lines each having five syllables and the second line seven syllables. It sounds simple, right? It is. I can still create a haiku in a minute on any subject you throw at me. Of course, it doesn't mean my poems are any good.

In this blog I have done many Godzilla haiku - yukking it up for laughs, but in Japan I did write several more serious ones, and even created one in seconds - it just flowed out of my head and onto the paper via my pen - for a beautiful young woman that I fell in love with at first sight. It's a rare thing, my friends. I rare thing. You'll know when it happens...

Born in Ueno-shi, Iga-ken in 1644, Bashō was actually named Kinsaku Matsuo (松尾 金作), then Chūemon Munefusa Matsuo (松尾 忠右衛門 宗房). He was born of noble birth - his father was a samurai warrior - but a low-level one, and of course, in Japan at that time, the son was expected to follow in his father's footsteps.

I can't even imagine what it was like for Bashō or his father, when he decided at age 11 to become a poet.

At around 10 or 11 years of age, Bashō became a servant to Tōdō Yoshitada - surname first - (藤堂 良忠): together they shared a love for haikai no renga, which is a form of comic collaborative poetry composition. I've not tried that with poetry, but certainly have with short story writing, where I would write a page or a chapter and then my fellow writer would continue that thread, and then I would and so on. It's fun.... 

In the haikai no renga format, it begins with an opening verse written in 5-7-5 mora (syllable) format - a verse that was known as a hokku, which literally means 'starting verse'.

It was not until the late 19th century, when poet Shiki Masaoka (1867–1902), renamed this stand-alone hokku to the more familiar term haiku, though the term 'hokku' still refers to the opening verse of a longer Japanese poem. 

Anyhow, back in the days of Bashō when he wrote the collaborative poem, after the initial hokku verse, the next person would create a 7-7 syllable verse.

It was at this time that both Bashō and Tōdō utilized haigō (俳号), which in English means poetry pen names. Bashō's pen name was Sōbō (宗房), which is another way to read the kanji of his adult name Munefusa (宗房).

In 1662 Bashō created his first real poem... and more followed. But, when Yoshitada died in 1666, Bashō's life as a servant was over, though he continued to create poems while struggling to discover what type of job he could hold.

His poems continued to be published in anthologies in 1667, 1669, and 1671, and he published his own compilation of work by him and other authors of the Teitoku school, Seashell Game, in 1672.

Eventually giving up any chance of remaining within the samurai-class, in 1672 he left his home town and traveled to Edo (now Tokyo) which was the head of the Tokugawa shogun government, to do more poetry writing, and, because even today there probably isn't a poet out there who is rich (excluding Ted Geisel/Dr. Seuss), he made a living as a teacher.

In 1674 he was inducted into the inner circle of the haikai profession.

At Edo, however, Bashō created his own style of haiku, which he called Sho Fu (Bashō Style). Really. You'd think that for a guy with such an awesome imagination, he might have come up with something either more creative or imaginative - say Bashō Whimsy.

What is Basho Style - well, I'm not a poetic historian, but apparently he decided that his haiku did not need to follow the comic stylings of the Danrin haiku school led by Nishiyama Soin (surname first) which was popular because of colloquial content and light humor.

And the reason why people globally know the name Bashō is because of his use of Nature in his writings, making it literary art.

According to those who seem to know, such as what I found here:, Bashō's work "emphasizes the atmosphere of "sabi" (elegant simplicity), "shiori" (a deep sympathetic feeling for both nature and humanity), "hosomi" (understatement) and "karomi" (a light tone). It is also focused on the mood of "yugen", spiritual profundity expressing the inner beauty of art and nature and "kanjaku", a serene desolation.

I'm not sure I could write that sentence in my own words if I tried.

Tired of Edo, Bashō renounced the social, urban life of the literary circles (teaching and poetry) and thought he should wander around Japan.... heading on various treks west, east, and far into the northern wilderness to gain inspiration for his writing.

A simple look at any of his poems - and you can Google his poems yourself, if so inclined, you can see that he was greatly influenced by what he saw and felt around him... able to capture that feeling in three simple lines, perhaps aided by Dosojin, Japan's god of the traveler, whispering to him.

And so... because he wanted to travel the paths of other great poets where the days and the months are travelers of a hundred generations, he undertook several journeys around Japan, much like other poets had, who traveled and composed until they felt the weight of the years.

In the spring of 1689, Basho undertook his third trek... this time going to the northern provinces, and though only 44 or 45 years old, he seemed to think he wasn't coming back, selling his home.

For Basho, he admired other poets who had died while on a journey. He probably thought there was something romantic about dying while doing what you love best. Me? I want to come and go at the same time. I think there's a spelling mistake in that last sentence.

This northern trip inspired him to create his famous book of poems: Oku-no Hosomichi (The Narrow Journey to the Deep North) - 奥の細道, originally おくのほそ道  - a travelogue.

It was on April 3, 1689, that Basho (and Sora his travel companion) arrived at the town of Kurobane in Tochigi-ken. Or was it May 21, 1689? It was both.

That first date is via Japan's use of the old lunar calendar (see HERE). The solar calendar we use now would make his arrival date May 21.

Haiku and description carved into a stone monument commemorating Basho's work at the Kurobane Bashō museum.

In 1691, Bashō took his third trek around Japan, this time heading west, leaving Edo on March 4, 1691 and arrived at Nagashima on July 25, 1691. I'm guessing this isn't the Nagashima in Kagoshima (the large island to the southwest), but is instead the one closer to Osaka, near Mie-ken (it's recently merged with other towns to become the expanded city of Kuwana).

One of my favorite Basho poems involves his travels to see the mystical Mt. Fuji:
"In a way / It was fun / Not to see Mount Fuji / In foggy rain."

I can dig it. In three years of passing by and standing supposedly at the foot of this legendary Japanese mountain, I never caught a glimpse of it while on Japanese soil. Cloud, smog, rain, snow... what the hell?! It makes me wonder if it actually exists.

The last trip that Basho made, was when he left Edo in the summer of 1694, first spending time in Ueno (now a part of Tokyo) before traveling to Kyoto and then nearby Osaka.

He developed a stomach sickness and died peacefully in a country inn in Naniwa, Osaka.

Perhaps because he only thought he was sick and not going to die, he did not prepare a zetsumei-shi, (絶命詩) - a death poem, which the literati in Japan and some other cultures prepare in advance of the death.

However... he did write the following haiku, which is generally accepted to be his last poem.

Tabi ni yande
yume wa kareno wo
kake meguru

Which translates to:

Falling sick on a journey
my dream goes wandering
over a field of dried grass

Nowadays, many a poet travels the path of Bashō, hoping to be similarly stimulated.

Me... I now get my inspiration from being curiouser and curiouser.

Andrew 'Wander' Joseph

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