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Summer 2005, vol 3 no 2


Feature ~

by Anita Virgil

The bird set free,
Collides with a tree.
       —Anon. senryu (early 18th century)

[R. H. Blyth, Japanese Life and Character in Senryu (Japan, Hokuseido, 1960), p. 51]

In Basho’s lifetime, he had upwards of two thousand followers it has been said. But there were ten individuals who became known as his Ten Great Disciples: Etsujin, Hokushi, Joso, Kikaku, Kyorai, Kyoroku, Ransetsu, Shiko, Sanpu and Yaha. All lived into the 18th century. All were considered to be competent poets under Basho’s tutelage. Most founded their own schools of poetry after the Master died. But though they attempted to follow in his footsteps, their own worst inclinations prevailed to the detriment of the art of haiku. No advance was made upon Basho’s enormous contribution in the fifty years after his death. As this admonishing poem (given to a student shortly shortly before Basho’s death) implies, to emulate continually is not to permit one's own talents to grow:

Do not resemble me—
        Never be like a musk melon
      Cut in two identical halves.
                                                —Basho (1694)

[Makoto Ueda, Matsuo Basho (New York, Twayne Publishers, Inc. 1970), p.183]

His long experience in the role of haikai master must have led to this warning in which Basho intuited that things might not go as well as he would have wished for his disciples (and theirs). He was not off the mark. Their work, examples of which follow, rarely equals and never surpasses Basho’s. Yet even on the heels of an apparent failure, unexpected benefits can accrue.

Kikaku showed the most individuality of the Ten and was the most free and vigorous of Basho’s followers.

Recalling that basho means banana tree, there is a charming tribute and a self-portrait in this poem of Kikaku’s:

A tree frog, clinging
     to a banana leaf—
                   and swinging, swinging.

—Kikaku (1660-1707)

[Harold G. Henderson, An Introduction to Haiku (Garden City, New York, Doubleday and Company, Inc. 1958), p. 58]

His innate gaiety of spirit comes through other poems:

      Head down, the nightingale
Is singing its first song.


[Asataro Miyamori, trans. & annotator, An Anthology of Haiku Ancient and Modern (Japan, Chugai Printing Co., Ltd. 1932), p. 253]

         Summer airing:
Trying on a quilt,
                     And walking about in it.


[R. H. Blyth, A History of Haiku, Vol. 1 (Japan, Hokuseido, 1963), p. 135]

Bright the full moon shines:
   on the matting of the floor,
   shadows of the pines.


[Henderson, op. cit., p. 58]

Of the last poem, the special humor that is typically Kikaku’s is in the fact that the Japanese go outdoors to enjoy the moon-viewing while Kikaku is enjoying it in the warm comfort of his home.

 The coolness;
Above all, on Musahino Plain,
A falling star.


[R. H. Blyth, Haiku, Vol. 3, Summer-Autumn (Japan, Hokuseido 1952), p. 15]

A summer shower having come,
              The ducks run quacking round the house.


[Miyamori, op. cit., p. 261]

Another of Basho’s pupils, Ransetsu, whom he claimed as one of his favorites, wrote the following poem which apparently caused much controversy in that its interpretation can be so various. Literally, it is ‘plum/one/bloom/one/bloom/extent’s/warmth.’ In one translation it is:

On the plum tree            
                               one blossom, one blossomworth            
       of warmth.
                                                            —Ransetsu (1653-1707)

[Henderson, op. cit., p.54]

Following are some examples of the haiku of the remaining eight Great Disciples.

Alas! Another year has gone;
            I’ve hid my grey hair from my parents.
                                                               —Etsujin (1656?-1739)

[Asataro Miyamori, An Anthology of Haiku Ancient and Modern (The Chugai Printing Col, Ltd., 1932), p. 322]

After selling the field,
All the more I could not sleep,--
The voices of the frogs.
                                                               —Hokushi (d. 1718)

[R. H. Blyth, Haiku, Vol. 2 Spring (Japan, Hokuseido, 1950), p. 246]

            Colder even than snow,
The winter moon             
On white hairs.
                                                           —Joso (1661-1704)

[Blyth, Haiku, Vol. 4, Autumn-Winter (Japan, Hokuseido, 1952), p.212]

The fallen leaves have sunk and settled
Upon a rock below the water.

[Miyamori, op. cit., p. 283]

Kyorai, whose importance is probably greater as amanuensis to Basho than as a poet, collected the Master's words and critiques of poems into three volumes. Much of what is known as Basho’s critical talents comes to us through these books put together by Kyorai.

It has been said of him that he was mild-mannered and adhered closely to Basho’s aesthetic principles of sabi and shiori.

    The tips of the crags—
   Here too is someone,
Guest of the moon.
                                                                —Kyorai (1651-1704)

[Donald Keene, An Anthology of Japanese Literature (New York, Grove Press, Inc. 1955), p. 380]

Of this particular poem there is a little story which illustrates the technical problem of ambiguity often encountered in writing. Basho asked Kyorai what he had in mind when he wrote “guest of the moon.” Kyorai said, “One night when I was walking in the mountains by the light of the harvest moon, composing poetry as I went along, I noticed another poet standing by the crags.” Basho commented: “How much more interesting a poem it would be if by the lines ‘Here too is someone, guest of the moon’ you meant yourself.” [Ibid., p.381]

           The melons are so hot,
They have rolled             
             Out of their leafy hiding.

[Blyth, op. cit., Vol. 3, p. 7]

The man
Hoeing in the field,
                   Seems motionless.

[_____, op. cit.,Vol. 2, p. 166]

Kyoroku, three of whose poems follow, is another of Basho’s favorite pupils and the painter with whom Basho studied. Kyoroku illustrated some of the most famous poems of the Master at Basho’s request.

Summer airing of clothes—   
      On one pole hang death-clothes.
                                            —Kyoroku (1655-1715)

[Miyamori, op. cit., p. 296]

Even to the saucepan
Where potatoes are boiling,--
A moonlit night.

[R. H. Blyth, Haiku, Vol. 1, Eastern Culture (Japan, Hokuseido, 1949), p. 322]

Above the white clouds:

[ ______, op. cit.,Vol. 2, p. 197]

      On a temple’s dining hall          
Sparrows twitter—             
     Winter shower in the evening.
                                            —Shiko (1664-1731)

[Ueda, op. cit., p.173]

Lo! Frogs are swimming at the door
In May rains’ overflow.
                                            —Sanpu (1646-1732)

[Miyamori, op. cit., p. 306]

Up they swing,                       
and the mattocks glitter:
fields in spring.

[Henderson, op. cit., p. 67]

Voices of people
Pass at midnight:     
The cold!           
                                            —Yaha (1662-1740)

[Blyth, op. cit., Vol. 4, p. 183]

When I’d swept the garden thoroughly
Some camellia flowers dropped down.

[Miyamori, op. cit., p. 315]

Another pupil of Basho’s who is not included among his Ten Great Disciples, but of whom it has been said he ought to have been, is Boncho. He was a physician who excelled in objective, realistic descriptions. His poems are precursors to Buson and later poets. I find the delicacy of the next poem points this out:

             Throwing away the ashes,
The white plum-blossoms
Became cloudy.
                                            —Boncho (d. 1714)

[Blyth, op. cit., Vol. 4, p. v]

Others by Boncho:

The brushwood,
Though cut for fuel,
       Is beginning to bud.

[ _____, op. cit. Vol. 2, p. 382]

A razor,
Rusted in a single night,--
The summer rains!

[_______ , op. cit.,Vol. 3, p. 59]

Another name closely connected with Basho is Sora whom the Master called a quiet, leisurely person. He became a friend and pupil in 1686. Accompanying Basho on many of his journeys including the one to the far north depicted in Oku no Hosomichi, Sora also composed some good haiku. Some of them appear in Oku no Hosomichi.

To and fro, to and fro,
Between the lines of barley,
The butterfly.
                                            —Sora (1648-1710)

[ ____, op. cit., Vol. 2, p. 258]

The stars on the pond;
Again the winter shower
Ruffles the water.

[_____, op. cit., Vol. 4, p. 223]

The following poem is by the poetess Sono-jo, a pupil of Basho. (It was for her he wrote his “white chrysanthemum/ not a speck of dust” poem just before he died.)

            The child on my back
Playing with my hair,--
The heat!
                                            —Sono-jo (1649-1723)

[Blyth, op. cit., Vol. 3, p. 10]

In the era of Basho, there was another important poet of samurai birth who formulated his own style of writing. This was Kamijima Onitsura (1660-1738). Eclipsed by the immense ultimate popularity of Basho, Onitsura had only a few minor disciples.

Onitsura came from a town where renga and haikai had been in vogue for generations, so it was quite natural for him to write verse from a very early age. His education began with the Teitoku School and then evolved to its counterpart, the Danrin School, where he studied under its leader, Soin. But the sort of poetry being written by them was deteriorating, depending for its effect upon punning, conceits and intellectual games. Onitsura decided early that neither school suited him. He believed “sincerity of motive was of greater importance than technique—that a literary life and soul was essential to true poetry.” [Onitsura in Miyamori, op. cit., p. 33] His most well-known statement was, “Outside of truth, there is no poetry.” [Onitsura in Henderson, op. cit., p. 73]

At one time, Onitsura was a distiller of sake; at another, an acupuncturist. He gave up the lucrative way of life for poetry. At the end of his long life, he entered the priesthood and wrote no more. But those poems which come to us are an interesting assortment of beauty and humor of the type that will later emerge in the work of the major 18th century haiku poets, Buson and Issa.

The dawn of day:
On the tip of the barley-leaf
The frost of spring.
                                            —Onitsura (1660-1738)

[Blyth, op. cit., Vol. 1, p. x]

     The Great Morning:
Winds of long ago         
                  Blow through the pine-trees.

[ _____ , op. cit., Vol. 2, p. 4]

This poem, reminiscent of Moritake’s poem (c. 1508),

               It is New Year’s Morning:
I think also of the Age
Of the gods.    

[Ibid., p. 3]

is evidence of the recurring tendency in Japanese poetry to allude to or re-write earlier poems as a tribute to ancient masters. There is a different tone, however, to Onitsura's poem on The Great Morning (New Year’s Morning). His is grand and expansive when compared to the introspection of Moritake’s poem. For contrast, this acute sensory observation:

How hot the cobwebs look,
Hanging on summer trees. 

[Miyamori, op. cit., p. 244]

Of Onitsura’s light and humorous poems:

Blossoms go      
        and again it’s quiet
at Onjo.

[Henderson, op. cit., p. 78]

Presumably, the flower-viewing hoards are gone. Most permanent residents of such places are grateful when this occurs.

A spring day—and:
        in the garden, sparrows
        bathing in the sand!

[Ibid., p. 79]

Eyes, side-to-side;
       nose, up-and-down.
       Spring flowers!


Some of Onitsura’s poems point the way toward senryu. This one intensifies his teachers’ mild complaint

             Gazing at the cherry blossoms,
The bone of my neck               
Gets painful.               
                                            —Soin (1604-1682)

[Blyth, op. cit., A History, Vol. 1, p. 79]

by portraying the ardent sightseers’ malady, a particularly Japanese preoccupation:

Mountains and plains,        
       look—as if it were noontime!
             Of course one’s neck pains.

[Henderson, op. cit., p. 76]

The following poem, more complicated and beautiful, also employs what the innovative American poet of the 20th century, e. e. cummings, used—a playful, rhythmic, delightful confusion of the senses.

Anyone lived in a pretty how town
(with up so floating many bells down)
                                                                —e. e. cummings (c.1950)

[e. e. cummings in A Little Treasury of Modern Poetry, ed. Oscar Williams (New York, Scribners, 1950), p. 361]

      A trout leaps;
Clouds are moving
                     In the bed of the stream.

[Blyth, op. cit., Vol. 3, p. 253]

It is the beautiful topsy-turviness of both that makes the most of the particular occurrences.

Another haiku of Onitsura’s shows his inclination to infuse many of his poems with anthropo- morphism—something most modern haiku poets writing in English avoid.But when we examine the senryu and Issa’s work in the latter 18th century, we come up against the fact that personification and animism are often found in senryu, and seldom in haiku. Animism has origins in Hinduism and Buddhist beliefs which held that all things are alive and have a right to existence. And primitive early Shintoism was the worship by the Japanese of spirits who were the very streams, stones, wood, the wind, etc. Now, a look at Onitsura’s stones which fancifully compose songs:

A mountain stream:          
          even the stones make songs—
wild cherry trees.

[Henderson, op. cit., p. 78]

It is a poem of joyfulness and merriment in sight and sound. Sometimes, as in this poem, it is hard to determine how best to depict reality—and whether, for the sake of the poem, to draw distinctions between what seems to be and what is. In this narrow slot, only a very few extremely skilled poets excel and write their poems out of a genuine intimacy with all things of this world. In the hands of lesser talents, it comes off as nothing but sheer artifice—unnatural.

The tenderness toward all things of this world is shown in the next poem which comes out of the Japanese custom of bathing out of doors in a tub on hot nights.

There is no place               
          to throw the used bath water.
Insect cries!     

[Henderson, op. cit., p. 80]

From this sampling of the work of a few of Basho’s followers, and from the sampling of Onitsura’s work, we can surmise what Basho meant when he warned his student not to be like a musk melon cut in two identical halves. Though some fine poems were written under Basho’s guidance, in almost no instance do they improve upon or explore beyond the Master’s work. Insofar as Kikaku maintained his individuality, his poems have a flavor distinct from Basho. Probably this is why Basho derived pleasure from Kikaku’s role of the enfant terrible of his disciples: he was an independent.

Onitsura, who did not follow in Basho’s path, comes to us as a fresh breeze. His work has a lightness and verve that was akin to what Basho sought in his last years of writing. What Onitsura may lack in depth is compensated for in his new directions and in the potential for another kind of haiku, one of elegance and delicacy, one with humor.

Influences both positive and negative affected the changing face of haiku over the half-century before Buson entered upon the scene. As a result of the watered-down poetry by those incapable of meeting Basho’s standards, haiku suffered an inevitable collapse—the bird had hit the tree! And as the 18th century opened on a flood of poor haiku, the reactive swing of the poetic pendulum was toward parodies of haiku that ultimately brought senryu into being. Having had its fill of “nature” poems, the lively cosmopolitan bourgeois society of the Genroku (1677-1704) and Horeki (1751-1764) Periods turned its back on them to write, instead, poems featuring people.Thus:

Upside down               
                    She rubs and scours herself
With washing powder. 
                                                                   —Anon. senryu (early 18th century)

[Blyth, op. cit., Japanese Life, p. 31]

which is a parody of Kikaku’s haiku

Head down, the nightingale
Is singing its first song.

[Miyamori, op. cit., p. 253]

The following parody draws a bead on haiku’s then-current sterility:

The love-potion;                 
          Waiting, waiting, for its effect,
The year draws to its close.
                                                                —Anon. senryu (early 18th century)

[Blyth, op. cit., Japanese Life, p. 37]

That last line “The year draws to its close” was incorporated into many haiku. This is just the sort of overlapping which continues to cause confusion among poets today as they attempt to distinguish a haiku from a senryu without a working knowledge of the origins of senryu--without the realization of the purpose these incorporated phrases serve. Hence the inclusion of some nature reference in a senryu can lead poets to falsely assume that therefore, the poem is a haiku. The test, therefore, is where does the emphasis of the poem lie in this particular poem? I stated in the Introduction to my book One Potato Two Potato Etc: “Simplistically speaking, if it is man within the world, it is haiku. If it is the world within the man, it is senryu.” [Anita Virgil, One Potato Two Potato Etc (Forest, Va. Peaks Press, 1991)]

Even Basho did not escape the irreverence of the senryu writers:

Winter seclusion;        
          The mark of the glasses
On his nose.               
                                                                —Anon. senryu (early 18th century)

[Ibid., p. 50]

Another senryu of the early 1700s is this one:

Knocked down,            
     His snowy umbrella
Became light.         
                                                                —Anon. senryu (early 18th century)

[Ibid., p. 60]

Its prototype is this haiku by Kikaku which has two versions. The popular one is

When I think it is mine,
The snow on the umbrella
Is light.

[Blyth, op. cit., Haiku, Vol. 4, p. 250]

Probably Kikaku’s tendency toward being too clever—intellectualizing in his poems—made him an easy target. However, it does not follow that humor in haiku is undesirable. To the contrary, many of the best haiku contain an underlying subtle humor, a cosmic humor and paradox—upon which many haiku depend—cannot exist without the poet’s ability to light upon some of the absurdities of life which are indeed truths.

The senryu flourished after Basho because haiku had collapsed of its own weakness. For all the true reverence displayed in the best haiku, there was an overwhelming preponderance of what was ersatz coming from the multitudes of minor dabblers. An endemic problem even in the 21st century! It is this falsity to which the new kind of writers reacted with impatience and irreverence: There are no sacred cows! There is only honesty—even if it hurts. Thus, the emergent senryu reckons with sentimentality, with what is less than honest, with hypocrisy, cutting it all down to size with the razor-sharp blade of humor. In the process, senryu itself blossomed as an art form at this time, preparing and sharing the stage with the next high levels in haiku poetry reached by Yosa Buson and Kobayashi Issa at the latter part of the 18th century.

Anita Virgil lives in Forest, Virginia. She is a past president of the Haiku Society of America. She was a member of the three-person HSA Committee on Definitions which included Harold G. Henderson and William J. Higginson. As a member of the Book Committee for A Haiku Path (HSA, Inc. 1994), she edited the two chapters on Definitions.

Books: A 2nd Flake (1974), one potato two potato, etc. (1991, Peaks Press), on my mind, an Interview of Anita Virgil by Vincent Tripi (3rd edition, Press Here, 1993), PILOT (1996, Peaks Press), A Long Year (2002, Peaks Press), and summer thunder (2004, Peaks Press).
Her poetry and essays and book reviews have appeared in all major haiku magazines and anthologies for 35 years. Most recently, she appears in the anthologies Where Dogs Dream (2003, MQP London), Haiku for Lovers (2003, MQP London), Haiku (2003, Alfred A. Knopf Everyman's Library edition). Poems and essays have also appeared on the Internet and in magazines in Yugoslavia, Croatia, Slovenia, Russia and Serbia/Montenegro.

Of her work, Anita writes: I always had and still have a single goal for haiku: that it be poetry, that it sit comfortably in its uniqueness amid the literature of the world. There is no reason for it not to since the best artists speak "to our capacity for delight and wonder, to the sense of mystery surrounding our lives: to our sense of pity, and beauty, and pain."*

* from Nigger of the Narcissus by Joseph Conrad.

 [Photograph credit: Jennifer V. Gurchinoff]

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