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Autumn 2007, vol 5 no 3

Matsuo Basho's Poetic Spaces:
Exploring Haikai Intersections

edited by Eleanor Kirkham
A Review by Robert D. Wilson


Basho the poet. Basho the ascetic. Basho the teacher. Matsuo Basho is, by and far, the most influential Japanese haiku poet to have graced the planet. Scores of books have been written in a multitude of languages showcasing his haiku, tanka, renga, and haibun, yet sadly, little has been written in the English language regarding the man himself and what he believed in regard to poetry. Dr. Makoto Ueda, of course, has written two books on Basho, though much of the content deals with individual poems. Dr. Peipei Qiu has examined in detail the poet's connection with Daoism and the Chuang-tzi. All are interesting and informative but give us little insight into the mindset of this great man.

Matsuo Basho's Poetic Spaces is a collection of essays by internationally recognized scholars in the field of Japanese poetics who analyze various aspects of Basho's life and poetry. An interdisciplinary collection, these scholarly essays examine "the literary, philosophical, and artistic intersections" of a poetic voice that needs to be more fully comprehended and through this comprehension, readers will see and understand Japanese haiku in a deeper sense.

The essays in the book are written by Hori Nobuo, David Landis Barnhill, Peipei Qiu, William LaFleur, Haruo Shirane, Horikiri Minoru, I. Leopold Hanami, Eleanor Kirkham, Joan Mara, Stephen Addis, and Eri F. Yasuhara.

States Laurel Rasplica Rodd, Professor of Japanese and Comparative Literature at the University of Colorado (USA), "Taken together, the essays are groundbreaking in their attention to the full range of Basho's literary and artistic activities, as well as to Basho's connections to the Daoist, Buddhist, and Neo-Confucian traditions."

Some excerpts from the book's essays:

"What makes the 'Basho style' fundamentally different from those of other haikai schools is that it frankly expresses keijo (environment and emotion) just as it is. This certainly is Karumi's [lightness] season. The kei of keijo means scenery or landscape, expressing the concrete image of a thing just as it is, without clever artifice. In Chinese poetics we also find the phrase, 'unification of environment and emotion' (J. keijo itchi); basically it means expression in which landscape is depicted, charged with emotional resonance. Therefore, it is not a mere copy or sketch of a scene . . . expressions of environments that come to possess emotion of their own accord.

"Also, of course, many different qualities exist in the emotions that derive from the environments, but the one that Basho most emphasized in his last years was ordinary feeling, feelings that can casually emerge from everyday life. This is what is called 'zokutan heiwa' (lit., commonplace stories in ordinary language) --- writing verse about everyday things in plain, easy words.

shiodai no
haguki mo samushi
uo no tana
salted bream,
cold up to their gums:
fishmonger's shelf

(Komojishishu [Straw Lion Collection]. 1693

"This verse describes an impression of bitter cold from the gums of salted sea bream lined up in a fishmonger's stall. This is indeed one of the pinnacles of haiku as the poetry of ordinary people. In first touching on it, this quality of ordinariness was one of the things that Basho's disciple Kagami Shiko (1665 - 1731) most strongly emphasized as a way of teaching commoners; another was respect for the power of images, telling students to make the content of their verse just like a picture."

Horikiri Minoru
Basho's World of Poetic Expression
Translated by Cheryl Crowley

"In a relentless drive to seek new poetic ground, Basho either abandoned or lost, one after another, disciples who had played a major role at one stage but were unable to contribute or participate in his latest movement. Basho traveled simultaneously in two fundamental directions: on one hand, he journeyed vertically into the past, seeking out the traces of the ancients, revitalizing and recasting the tradition. At the same time, he moved horizontally from disciple to disciple, style to style, in constant pursuit of new languages and perspectives, without which the life of the tradition would be lost. Basho once described haikai as 'thirty-six steps forward, no steps backward.' The added verse must push off the penultimate verse to create a new world; it cannot return to earlier worlds. The same was true of Basho's poetic career as it was of his haikai."

Haruo Shirane
Double Voices and Basho's Haikai

"The skill and beauty involved in the metamorphoses of nature suggested to Basho, as well as to Chinese thinkers before him, that there is a parallel between art and the creativity of nature. In both cases, there is a 'controlling agency' only in the sense of an ingrained disposition to create works of art in a skillful way without willfully trying to. As Owen notes, the true artist has the power to be zoka ['the creative force of nature that has the spontaneous tendency and ability to exhibit transformations that are beautiful'] to perform as nature performs, and the search for artistic creativity is the search to be nature in this sense, to return to and follow its mode of creativity."

David Landis Barnhill
Zoka: The Creative in Basho's View of Nature and Art

"Modern culture has overwhelmingly developed a focus on visual images in preference to those of other senses. However, hearing, no less than sight, offers rich imagery. There is a long history of sounds such as the quiet patter of rain, the rustle of autumn leaves, and the lapping of waves on the shore to create magnificent poetic worlds. And perhaps we can say that within that history, Basho was a poet who expressed the soundless world of quietude by means of the world of audible sound."

Horikiri Minoru
Basho's World of Poetic Expression
Translated by Cheryl Crowley

One has to read each essay in its entirety to fully comprehend and ascertain the insight into Basho and his poetry these scholars mete out in their essays. This is an important book both from a poetic viewpoint and a sociological/historical viewpoint. It has opened up new vistas of insight for me, challenging the way I perceive haiku. It is through a deeper understanding of the genre that a serious haiku poet can better his craft.

Eleanor Kirkham is to be commended for putting this project together. I highly recommend purchasing a copy.

Matsuo Basho's Poetic Spaces:
Exploring Haikai Intersections

Edited by Eleanor Kirkham
Palgrave/Macmillan (2006)
ISBN 1-4039-7258-3