Monday, March 30, 2009

Bashō and Haiku

(This post by Sam starts with my favourite haiku. Thank you Sam!)

行春や/ 鳥啼魚の / 目は泪

Yuku haru ya / tori naki uo no/ me wa namida

Spring departing—/ the birds cry out / and the eyes of the fish / are full of tears

--Matsuo Bashō

Haiku is a traditional Japanese form of poetry that derives from the linked verse form haiku no renga (Higgins 26), one specific definition states that it is “a record of a moment of emotion in which human nature is somehow linked to all nature” (Henderson in Higgins 26). Through its brevity of words and focus on natural experience, haiku evolved into the dominant poetic form for Japanese poets. Haiku poets aim to capture the clarity of an emotion in a small amount of syllables that can be understood by all audiences. Haiku practitioners use a kisetsu (seasonal lexicon) which refers specifically to the climates of Kyoto and Osaka—where the largest populations reside—but certainly speaks to all of Japan (Higgins 20). This poetic dialect has created a distinctive relationship between emotions, seasons and symbols, and in turn ties both reader and poet to the orbiting macro and microcosm.. In the twentieth century, many poets chose to break ties with traditional haiku by focusing on images rather than emotions, disregarding any reference to seasonal context.

One of the most significant founding-practitioners of haiku was Matsuo Bashō (1644-94), a committed Zen Buddhist. His poetry has been continually popular and influential for poets well into the twenty-first century and the cause of many celebrations. His school of thought emphasizes “kōgo kizuko (awakening to the high, returning to the low), fuga no makoto (truth of petic art), zōka zuijun (following the Creative), butzuga ichinyo (object and self as one), and fueki ryūkō (the unchanging and changing)” (Shirane 257), in order to “create poetry that was simultaneously orthodox and unorthodox, that was sanctioned even as it was transgressive”(257). Bashō’s religious conceptions were also emphasized in his works as he “incorporated orthodox Neo-Confucian thought…hoping to raise the status of haikai, [and] give it a spiritual and cosmological backbone]” (298). Today there are many English translations available of his works and is hailed as a foundation Japanese haiku poet.

Though it is indigenously Japanese, haiku has also pervaded Western concepts of poetry and was particularly influential on the American Imagism movement. Ezra Pound’s famous poem “In the Station of the Metro”: “The apparition of these faces in the crowd; / Petals on a wet, black bough” (Untermeyer ed. 106) does not conform to traditional Japanese haiku but was a driving force for its popularity in America. There are many Western misconceptions about haiku because of errors made in translations from Japanese to English. It is especially concerning for the belief that haiku must be written in three lines with seven, five, and seven syllables but in the Japanese form it may be written in one or two lines with a more concise sounding syllabic structure (Barnhill 5).

More translations of Bashō’s poetry:

~guest blogger, Samantha Schwartz