Thursday, November 5, 2015

Matsuo Basho: The Early Years

Matsuo Bashō (松尾芭蕉) is one of the most famous Japanese poets in history. Even if a lot of non-Japanese people do not know his name, they will most likely have heard of the revolutionary style of poetry that he mastered beyond any of his contemporaries: haiku.
Bashō was born in Iga Prefecture in 1644 A.D., which is also the birthplace of the ninja, but that is a whole other story. His father was a low ranking samurai, and it seems that Bashō also worked there as a young man, but he was relegated to a very low position. According to some sources, he worked in kitchens and didn’t garner much respect from his peers. At some point in his childhood he became enamored with renga, which became his gateway to the world of haiku.
For this post, I want to delve into Bashō’s early life and his early haiku, before he attained real fame. Firstly, Bashō did not “invent” the haiku. A haiku is just a poem with 5-7-5 mora structure. Before the rise of the samurai, poetry was an aristocratic pursuit and the most common form was tanka. Tanka followed a 5-7-5-7-7 mora system, but in medieval Japan things started to change. Samurai took in an interest in “cultured pursuits”, such as poetry, but they were not so inclined to craft the emotionally raw and culturally indulgent poetry of the Heian aristocrats. Instead, popular poetry began to emerge as a creative activity and competition. Renga is one of the poetry games that arose from this cultural shift. Renga is a competitive form of poetry composition that I have already described in detail in another post.
Bashō also practiced renga, but it appears that he became unsatisfied. During Bashō’s time, Japan was also in a political and cultural transition. Japan was entering its so-called “Early-Modern” period. It was during this time that the Tokugawa Shogunate officially closed Japan’s borders and heavily restricted contact with outsiders.
Bashō himself seems like a man that was torn by opposing forces. He was born into the samurai class, but he decided to devote his life to poetry, and he seriously studied the Japanese and Chinese classics, along with other philosophical schools of thought. However, he wrote poems that were accessible to a large audience, not just the learned aristocrats. He would reference classical kigo (seasonal imagery) alongside popular themes. Bashō’s haiku encapsulate this apparent contradiction in such a profound way that he radically transformed this form of poetry. He not only wrote it, but he lived it. His life resembled Saigyō’s; he was a life-time wanderer and traveler, and it seems that his latent homosexuality caused him to be perpetually lonely. What I like most about Bashō is his fundamental humanity and his unique perspective to the human condition. For this post I am only translating some of his early haiku. In later posts, I will translate work from throughout his life, and we can see how his changing course affected his artistic expression.


Spring has arrived,
And the year is leaving us
Such a small, dark day…
As we all know, lunar calendars can cause some irregularity. The crux of this poem is that the year that Bashō wrote it spring “arrived” before the New Year. This is very rare but was possible.. Basically, Bashō is lamenting this strange occurrence with a play on words that is pretty much impossible to translate into English. The last line “小晦日” is a play on “New Year’s Eve” which is written “大晦日”. The two words are identical except for the first character. The actual word for New Year‘s Eve “大晦日” begins with “” which means “big”, and Bashō’s word starts with “”, which means “small”. I interpreted that to mean that New Year’s Eve has lost its significance and thus it is a “small, dark day”.

In the Capital,
Masses of people, both high and low,
Can see the blossoms.
This poem has a couple of tricks in it. Firstly, in Japanese it is highly alliterative, and he uses a play on words that is again tough to translate well. “九千くんじゅ”, which roughly translates to “nine thousand communities”, is very close in pronunciation to “kisen kunjuu”, which means “communities mixed with both high and low ranks”.

Withered, prostrate,
The world has turned upside down.
Snow on the bamboo.
This poem is a good example of Bashō using imagery to convey deep emotion. This is widely considered to be about the funeral of a child. The first line incorporates two verbs that seem similar but have very different contexts. Both verbs denote “drooping”, but “伏す” (fusu) has a connotation that indicates “bowing” like a child would to their elder. So the “child in question” is prostrate, but not because he is being obedient. He has passed away. The second line is an emotional outburst, and finally, Bashō finishes with elegant imagery. Bamboo is known to blow in the wind and although it is very firm, it can blow in an unruly way, almost petulant. So the bamboo being weighed down by snow signifies the loss of a child by the cruel and over-bearing world.

Clouds in the distance,
An old friend? Or just wild geese?
We’re lifetimes apart.
This one Bashō’s travel poems, and it is meant to express his profound loneliness. It is unclear if he is referring to a specific person or if he is speaking metaphorically. In any case, the reference to wild geese is a clear indicator of loneliness on the road.

The moon of summer,
Over Goyu it’s setting.
Those bright crimson hills.
This is one of those haiku that perhaps does have an intricate, implied meaning. I am not 100% sure where “Goyu” is, but I believe it is in Aichi Prefecture. However, I don’ think that’s important. I interpret this poem to have a multiple layers of sadness and intrigue. It is definitely peculiar for the moon to set while the sun is setting (hence the “crimson hills”). It makes for a surreal image, but it is also sad, because for so many travelers like Bashō the moon was a vital source of light during the night. This is the kind of “haiku image” that I really enjoy.

Freshly cut, the tree…
Inside it is visible…
Today’s rich, full moon.

I took some liberty with this one, but it seems to me that the crux of this poem is that the harvest moon is visible in the opening of the tree. What exactly that means is up to your interpretation.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Kobayashi Issa: The Dragonfly in the Weeds

            For this post I looked at one of my favorite haiku composers: Kobayashi Issa. Issa was alive in the late 18th century and he passed away in 1828. He came from a small farming town called Shinano in what is today Nagano prefecture. He traveled a lot in his life in order to ascertain poetic inspiration. For those who believe that only those who suffer greatly can produce great art, Issa fits the description.
            According to all the biographical accounts that I perused, he had three wives, of which two passed away. Also, according to different accounts, he had between four and eight children that died in infancy. His mother also died when he was a small child, and he absolutely hated his stepmother.
            He may have had one daughter with his third wife who survived to live a full life, but I am not sure. Edo (Tokyo of today) was where he spent most of his life. He did gather a significant reputation, but his iconoclastic style ruffled the feathers of a lot of his contemporaries.
            He wrote over 20,000 haiku, and he refrained from consistency. He wrote about numerous topics, but he is usually associated with writing about children or things mundane. His distaste for pomp and circumstance is obvious. Aesthetics is something that I believe he took seriously, but he expressed his appreciation of it in an unconventional way. The following haiku are a variety from his extensive collection. There is no consistent theme, and some of these may seem very simple. I would suggest the reader really dig deep in trying to relate to what he was trying to say. Ironically, the deeper you dig, the farther you may be from his intention.

To-ji in Kyoto

Only the tower
Of To-ji is visible,
In the summer grove.

Kobayashi Issa

To-ji is a temple in Kyoto, and I believe it is the tallest in the city. Apparently, in Issa’s days, To-ji was usually the first thing travelers coming from the east would see as they approached Kyoto.


The ice and snow melts,
And the village overflows
With happy children.

Kobayashi Issa


The spring rains fall down,
And there are those left unfed,
The ducks are quacking.

Kobayashi Issa

I am not sure if it is the ducks who are “left unfed”, himself, or perhaps those unfortunate. One way or the other, it is a compelling scene.


Bees in the thicket,
I cannot help but feel envy,
For your bright future!

Kobayashi Issa


Butterflies flying,
And I am just a piece of
Useless, old garbage.

Kobayashi Issa


The heavens above,
Dim to a beautiful tone,
In sweltering heat.

Kobayashi Issa


Can be found here
Flea-bitten and yet,
The youth, still are a form of
Absolute beauty.

Kobayashi Issa


The distant mountains
Are reflected in the eye
Of a dragonfly.

Kobayashi Issa

This one is my favorite.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Three Poets at Minase, Minase Sangin Hyakuin

Sōgi and Friends
For this post, I have translated the first twelve poems from the renga sequence, “Three Poets at Minase” or Minase sangin hyakuin. The three poets are Monk Sōgi and two of his disciples, Shōhaku (1443-1527) and Sōchō (1448-1532). The sequence contains one hundred poems, and it is one of the most famous. These kinds of renga compositions were usually composed at one gathering, and the poets had to create poems under strict thematic rules. They could not compose a poem that was too similar to the one before nor include allusive language and figurative expressions that were already used. There also had to be a link connecting the poem to the one preceding it.
            It was within these guidelines that renga poets had to work. As you read through these poems, keep in mind that each poem was written to stand alone, as well as be read as a contiguous collection. This double nature of renga compositions is what makes them so paradoxical. Are renga compositions greater than the sum of its parts? I would argue they aren't, because from my understanding, renga compositions are not used to create narratives or poetic/philosophical discussions. Instead, I believe that renga sequences are chiefly an act of poetic prowess by the group and the individual. That being said, there is clear progression in the collection, and you could perhaps argue that there are some elements of a narrative present. I think that as you read renga sequences you should enjoy the aesthetic language, appreciate the subtle linkages, and give credit to the coordination of the group.
Renga poets have to walk the line of being spontaneously creative, while also being able to create meaningful allusions to the long Japanese poetic tradition. Perhaps, this could be considered an exercise influenced by Japanese Buddhist philosophy in the sense that renga conveys to the idea that everything is connected, and although these connections are meaningful, they are also arbitrary at some level. We can also judge renga sequences as an essentially ephemeral act of artistic composition similar to Tibetan mandalas.


As the snow abides,
Haze rests at the mountain,
Here in evening-tide.


Plum Blossoms

Far away, water flows down,
From that plum-scented town.



A breeze from the stream
A copse of willows,
And I see Spring’s gleam.



Boatmen are punting away,
We hear them, on this new day.

Japanese Painting


Still, the moon’s roaming,
Passing through the misty night,
The darkness combing.



So soon... a frost-coated field,
Fading, autumn will soon yield.



Bugs cry like zithers
Without a care in the world,
As the grass withers...


Japanese Garden

If, at the fence, you stop by
You’ll see the path is clear ‘n dry.



Lost deep in the hills,
Perhaps the hamlet suffers
From storms, windy chills.    



For those who’re not used to life,
Loneliness cuts like a knife.



At this late hour,
You mustn’t dwell on being alone,
On thoughts so sour.



You don’t know this already?
Everything changes, nothing’s steady.


Saturday, January 11, 2014

Monk Kusai: The (Almost) Forgotten Renga Master

Emperor Go-Daigo
After a long hiatus, I decided to rekindle this blog with a post about a little known renga (linked-verse) poet: Monk Kusai. He probably lived from about 1282-1376 A.D. during the tumultuous Southern and Northern Courts period (Nanbokuchōjidai). The Kamakura Shogunate collapsed in 1333 A.D. and during this power vacuum the Emperor Go-Daigo tried to restore the power of the Imperial court at the expense of the samurai. This ill-fated venture is known as the Kenmu Restoration and it was an utter failure. It seems like it would have been a tough time to live, but perhaps it helped inspire some of his poetry...

I could not find a lot of biographical details about Monk Kusai, but as you can tell by his name, he was a Buddhist monk. Buddhist spirituality is reflected in some of his poems. He was also apparently a teacher of Nijō Yoshimoto, and helped compile the Tsukubashū and a rule book for renga. He was an early renga master and very important for the development of renga.

The poems below are all from the Tsukubashū, and I was able to find them thanks to Steven Carter’s Traditional Japanese Poetry: An Anthology. However, the translations are my own. In order to really appreciate renga poetry, you should look at the two verses as separate, and try to form the mental bridge that connects them. Kusai was big on subtlety. He was not fond of linked verses where the link was too obvious. So keep that in mind when you read these.




Can be found here

On an unfamiliar path,
I seek a nearby lodging.

Blossoms beckon me,
Maybe I have forgotten
Myself for my heart?

Monk Kusai

Can be found here




The coldness of the Moon...
If only a dear friend of mine
Would come and visit.

A distant temple’s bell rings
Deep in this autumn evening.

Monk Kusai

Can be found here




Beneath the waterfall’s splash
There is a stone in that pond.

Tears roll down my face,
Falling so inelegantly
Atop my ink stone.

Monk Kusai



Invite all it may,
This cruel, unforgiving gale
Doesn’t care for blossoms.

Monk Kusai

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Monk Sogi: Wise Traveler

Can be found here
For this post I want to talk about probably the most famous renga (linked-verse) poet, Monk Sōgi. He lived from 1421-1502 A.D. He was a Zen priest and a contemporary of Bishop Shinkei, but it does not seem that Sōgi worked directly under any of the poetic giants of his day. He came from a humble background from a village near Kyōto, but took Buddhist vows early on in his life. Similar to Saigyō, he spent a lot of his time travelling from place to place.
Sōgi was an innovator in Japanese poetry and his work set the stage for later haiku poets. His two most famous works are Minase sangin hyakuin and Yuyama sangin hyakuin (“Three Poets at Minase” and “Three Poets at Yuyama”) which are both 100 poem renga sequences in which three poets compose together within fairly strict guidelines. I am going to translate some of Minase sequence later.
He seemed to have learned the art of linking verse from Shinkei and Sōzei, but, like all famous Japanese poets, he is also able to pull allusions from the greats: Kokinshū and Shinkokinshū. I chose a few of his poems to translate, but keep in mind, some of these poems were probably meant to be read as a longer renga sequence so he may not have intended them to stand alone.

Can be found here



Perhaps a realization
That mankind is just a dream.

Forgotten about,
The garden is now a home
For butterflies.


This poem is an allusion to a famous passage written by the Taoist philosopher Zhuangzi. The passage goes:
Once I Zhuang Zhou dreamt that I was a butterfly fluttering about happily.
I did not know that I was Zhou. Suddenly, I awoke, and there I was, Zhou again.
I did not know whether I was Zhou dreaming that he was a butterfly or a
butterfly dreaming that it was Zhou. Between Zhou and a butterfly there
must be a distinction. This is called the transformation of things.
(Tran. Hyun Hochsmann and Yang Guorong)

This kind of paradox is common in Zhuangzi’s work. I think he is trying to indicate to us that our individual sense of reality could be arbitrary, and that all things are interconnected in a metaphysical, yet meaningful, way, or some mumbo jumbo like that.

Here is a selection of autumn poems.



A profound coolness,
Makes the ocean seem shallow,
This sky in autumn.


Can be found here


In this lonely night,
Still the cool autumn wind blows.
With no place to sleep
I must make a humble camp
By the seashore at Ise.



Can be found here

I cross autumn fields
In my dew-laden robes
On my return home.
Flowers woefully withered,
Evening has yet to arrive.




Ahh, this loneliness,
I've come to my wit’s end,
In this mountain town,
The icy autumn wind blows

And evening has yet to fall.


Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Bishop Shinkei: Lotus Caught in a Wildfire

Shinkei, or Bishop Shinkei as he was also known as, lived from 1406 to 1475 A.D. He was a student of Shōtetsu and a fervent believer in the superiority of waka compared to the new trend in poetry at his time, renga. The end of his life was very tumultuous due to the Ōnin War (1467-1477).
That war was completely crazy and destructive. The war began over a dispute over who would be the next shogun after Ashikaga Yoshimasa. The details of the dispute are boring and uninteresting, but the effects of that war on Japan were dramatic. Kyoto was reduced to ashes and Japan remained in a state of civil war for about 100 years following the war. This period is known as the Sengoku Jidai, which translates to the Warring States Period. The war was so was debilitating to both sides that the entire shogunate disintegrated into several smaller states, and it wasn’t until Oda Nobunaga that Japan was again, at least partially, unified.
Shinkei, like his teacher Shōtetsu, was enamored with classical Japanese poetry and culture. He felt that the poets of the Heian period were the best, and the dilettante samurai poets of his day lacked real talent.
His poetry is idiosyncratic and cynical at times. He devoted some poetry to describe the grievances of his time, but most of his poetry followed the tried and true themes set down by his predecessor. He was also high-ranking in the Buddhist clergy, he was a “bishop” after all, so some of his poetry has a Buddhist ring to it.
Some of the poetry I translated is in waka form, but other poems are split as they would be for a renga sequence, meaning that they start with the 7-7 couplet. I did include a couple of his 5-7-5 hokku, which essentially are haiku, but unlike later haiku poetry, these weren’t meant to stand alone and were usually incorporated into a longer renga sequence.   


Red Plum and Moon

In the depths of night
The sweet aroma of plum
Stirs me from my dreams.
I hadn’t even rolled the screen,
Spring’s powerful breeze through the eaves.


By “rolled the screen” he’s referring to a bamboo screen which would usually be unrolled in front of the window, similar to a curtain.




In the dawn light, I can’t parse
My dreams from reality.

In the moon’s dull glow,
Those scattering blossoms
Don’t belong to this world.


I like this poem because of its dreamy feel.



There’s hardly a trace,
Even if this sky of this spring
Seems to be the same
As those past, I’m just one man,
The moon has become hazy.


I had a hard time with this one and I found it kind of bizarre.  I feel like he is lamenting the time passing and the general degradation of the world around him.

Can be found here




One can’t see the wind blowing,
Or the mountain’s echo.

For all things that be,
Whether they are or are not,
They look similar.


This is a very Buddhist poem. Basically, he is being pedagogical and saying that although we cannot see the wind or an echo, they still exist but also do not exist.



Dark clouds still above
Our already doomed world,
Will there be showers?


The prelude to this poem is about the Ōnin war.

Can be found here



Leaves painted by fall
Rotting at the water’s edge.
Bright white morning frost.



This one has some nice imagery.



When I dwell on things,
Such as flowers and phantoms,
And how they differ,
My heart, all of a sudden,
Shatters into a million pieces.


I like this one a lot because I don’t really understand what it means.