Monday, February 13, 2012


Basho on writing poetry

Here are a few paragraphs from "Learn from the Pine," a gathering of comments on writing poetry, written by or attributed to the poet Matsuo Basho, who lived in Japan from 1644 to 1694. These are quoted from The Essential Haiku: Versions of Basho, Buson, & Issa, edited by Robert Hass, published 1994 by Harper Collins.

The translation of the excerpts below is, as far as I can tell, by Robert Hass; at any rate, Hass doesn't indicate another translator for these.


Learn about pines from the pine, and about bamboo from the bamboo.

Don't follow in the footsteps of the old poets, seek what they sought.

The basis of art is change in the universe. What's still has changeless form. Moving things change, and because we cannot put a stop to time, it continues unarrested. To stop a thing would be to halve a sight or sound in our heart. Cherry blossoms whirl, leaves fall, and the wind flits them both along the ground. We cannot arrest with our eyes or ears what lies in such things. Were we to gain mastery over them, we would find that the life of each thing had vanished without a trace. [...]

[...] The secret of poetry lies in treading the middle path between the reality and the vacuity of the world.

One must first of all concentrate one's thoughts on an object. Once one's mind achieves a state of concentration and the space between oneself and the object has disappeared, the essential nature of the object can be perceived. Then express it immediately. If one ponders it, it will vanish from the mind.

Sabi is the color of the poem. It does not necessarily refer to the poem that describes a lonely scene. If a man goes to war wearing stout armor or to a party dressed up in gay clothes, and if this man happens to be an old man, there is something lonely about him. Sabi is something like that.

When you are composing a verse, let there not be a hair's breadth separating your mind from what you write. Quickly say what is in your mind; never hesitate a moment. [...]

[...] There are three elements of haikai. Its feeling can be called loneliness (sabi). This plays with refined dishes, but contents itself with humble fare. Its total effect can be called elegance. This lives in figured silks and elegant brocades, but does not forget a person clad in woven straw. Its langjuage can be called aesthetic madness. Language resides in untruth and ought to comport with truth. It is difficult to reside in truth and sport with untruth. These three elements do not exalt a humble person to heights. They put an exalted person in a low place.

The profit in haikai lies in making common speech right.

If you describe a green willow in the spring rain it will be excellent as a renga verse. Haikai, however, needs more homely images, such as a crow picking mud snails in a rice paddy.


The translation of Basho I've liked best is Backroads to Far Towns, translated by Cid Corman, published 2004 by White Pine Press. (At the above link, scroll down in the page until you come to the book.) The book is essentially a travel journal of Basho's wanderings in Japan, on foot, over a two-year period starting in 1689.

A wonderful exploration of Basho's life and work, and the work of various other Japanese poets, is Basho's Ghost by Sam Hamill, itself to some extent a journal of Hamill's travels and meetings with people in Japan sometime during the 1980's. The book was published 1989 by Broken Moon Press in Seattle; the last I knew it was was long out of print, though I've seen it turn up in a used book store once or twice over the years.

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