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"Haiku," Bashō (1644–1694) was fond of saying, "is the heart of the Man'yoshu," the first imperial anthology, compiled in the eighth century. "Haiku," many modern Japanese poets are fond of saying, "began and ended with Bashō." Look beyond the hyperbole of either observation, and there is a powerful element of truth. As one Japanese poet told me, "There's only Bashō—and Buson and Issa are, as you say, exceptions proving the rule."
In three lines totaling seventeen syllables measuring 5-7-5, a great haiku presents—through imagery drawn from intensely careful observation—a web of associated ideas (rensō) requiring an active mind on the part of the listener. When Bashō writes:
the bee emerges from deep
within the peony
is he merely presenting a pathetical fallacy, attributing human emotion to a bee, or is he entering into the authentic experience of "beeness" as deeply as possible? Perhaps both qualities are present. His detailed observation calls for something other than metaphor; it demands literal accuracy. Is the bee inside his mind or outside? The poem moves in part because of tension raised through the underlying question of duality that Zen resolves in silence.
The bee, the peony, the poet—all one idea composed of many.
In another poem, Bashō finds
Delight, then sorrow,
aboard the cormorant
without having to describe for his audience the nooses tied around the throats of fishing birds to inhibit swallowing. He is initially delighted by their amazing skill and grace, then horrified that they cannot swallow what they catch, saddened by their captivity and exploitation, and perhaps even more deeply saddened by the fishingfolk he never mentions. What remains unstated begs for a profound moral equation, although only the poet's compassion is clearly implied.
The best haiku reflect an undeniable Zen influence. Elements of compassion, silence, and awareness of temporality often combine to reveal a sense of mystery. Just as often, haiku may bring a startling insight into the ordinary, as when Buson writes:
Nobly, the great priest
deposits his daily stool
in bleak winter fields
thereby reminding his audience that nobility has nothing whatever to do with palaces and embroidered robes, but that true nobility is obtainable in every human endeavor.
Issa reminds the attentive listener:
A world of dew,
and within every dewdrop
a world of struggle
Haiku may be the most recognizable poetic form in the world. At play with the form, children quickly discover their own poetic imaginations; almost anyone can learn to make decently haiku in no time at all. Just as anyone can learn to write a quatrain or a sonnet. The problem remains: to be great, a poem must rise on its own merit, and too much haiku is merely haiku. Haiku written in American English and attempting to borrow traditional Japanese literary devices usually ends up smelling of the bric-a-brac shop, all fragmentary dust and mold or cheap glitter coating the ordinary, or—worse—the merely cute or contrived. Great haiku cuts both ways, sometimes witty or sarcastic, sometimes making Zenlike demands for that most extraordinary consciousness, no-mind or ordinary-mind.
Haiku should be approached with a daily sort of reverence, as we might approach an encounter with a great spiritual teacher. It is easy to imitate, it is difficult to attain. The more deeply the reader enters into the authentic experience of the poem, the more the poem reveals. When Kikaku writes,
In the Emperor's bed,
the smell of burnt mosquitoes,
and erotic whispers
we must realize first that the burning of mosquitoes clears the air for erotic play; then we may wonder whether the "smell of burnt mosquitoes" might become a kind of erotic incense for the Emperor, a stimulant for his lust. Thus, lust, love, and death are joined in primal experience. Is there a buried needle in this verse? Does Kikaku intend for us to think critically of a decadent emperor? And what does that reveal about ourselves? Revealing the relationship between these mundane activities shakes up our polite perceptions like a Zen slap in the face—a call to awaken to what actually is.
Haiku, sprung free from the opening lines of predominantly humorous "linked verse" (renga) created by multiple anchors, began to articulate aesthetic qualities such as a sense of beautiful aloneness, sabishisa, and restrained elegance, furyu.
Bashō brought to haiku "the Way of Elegance" (fuga-no-michi), deepened its Zen influence, and approached poetry itself as a way of life (kadō, the way of poetry) in the belief that poetry could be a source of enlightenment. "Achieve enlightenment, then return to this world of ordinary humanity," he advised. And, "Do not follow in the footsteps of the old masters, but seek what they sought." His "way of elegance" did not include the mere trappings associated with elegance; he sought the authentic vision of "the ancients."
Born into a samurai family prominent among nobility, Bashō rejected that world and became a wanderer, studying Zen, history, and classical Chinese poetry, living in apparently blissful poverty under a modest patronage and from donations by his many students. In addition to being the supreme artist of haiku and renga, Bashō wrote haibun, brief prose-and-poetry travelogues like Narrow Road to the Interior, that are absolutely nonpareil in the literature of the world.
If Bashō is the great river of haiku, Buson and Issa are primary tributaries. If Bashō lived and advocated a life of solitary poverty and travel, Buson (1715–1783), by contrast, appears to have been a devoted family man and a successful painter. While he "sought what Bashō sought," he did not share his master's rigorous Zen discipline nor his deep classicism. Buson's major contribution to haiku is his complexity and his painter's eye. Whereas Bashō taught, "Master technique, then forget it," Buson's technique is less transparent, his poems more consciously composed. He is a poet of enhanced sensibility and evocation.
Issa (1762–1826) wrote poetry that is especially remarkable considering the life of the poet. His mother died while he was an infant, and his stepmother was a plague upon his soul until he left home at fourteen. He lived in poverty for twenty years before returning for his father's death in 1801. Although he was named principle heir in his father's will, his stepmother and half brother conspired successfully to keep Issa from the property for thirteen more years. He would eventually write:
My dear old village,
every memory of home
pierces like a thorn
When he finally returned from Edo (Tokyo), he married a young village woman, but all five of their children died, as did his wife of ten years. And his house burned down. He lived four more years, married again, and finally had an heir, a baby girl—born shortly after his death.
Neither as at ease as Bashō nor as composed as Buson, Issa wrote a more personal poetry, moving steadily into a Pure Land Buddhist philosophy that expressed true devotion without getting caught up in the snares of mere religious dogmatism. Sometimes humorous or sarcastic, often of uneven quality, his poems are prized for their remarkably compassionate and poignant insight. Following the death of one of his children, he wrote
This world of dew
is only a world of dew—
And the poem is large enough—and sufficiently particular—to say it all. As is so often the case, the most important part is that which is left unstated.
The great age of haiku spans only a little over a hundred years, and yet its poetry is a river that continues to flow. In our own age and language, wonderful haiku have been written by poets as diverse as Gary Snyder, Richard Wright, Lew Welch, and Richard Wilbur, to name a few.
Bashō is neither the beginning nor the end. Re-encountering these poems and translating them has been, like the leap of Bashō's famous frog, a plunge into the sound of water, each brief poem expanding in ever-widening ripples.
Port Townsend, Washington