The haiku master
explicated his own work.
So I could do worse.
NOTES: You could get the idea in sophisticated poetry circles, that it’s low-rent to indulge in writing poetry about yourself or discussing your own work.
You can almost hear a schoolmarmish voice laying out the ground rules.
“Best to write about concept and ideas, and always with an ironic detachment lest you should be accused of wallowing in sentimentality.
“Do not indulge in personal poetry. And, whatever you do, be sure to let the poem speak for itself. Don’t commit the sin of talking about your work or trying to explain what it means. The work is what it is, and it means what it means to the reader.”
Well, I say hogwash to all that.
And my first expert witness is none other than Matsuo Basho, the 17th century haiku master.
Like every fan of haiku, I had read Basho’s poems, but I couldn’t say that I had really gotten to know Basho until I stumbled across his travel diaries.
If I have some free time on a weekend, one of my favorite pastimes is to duck into our local used bookstore to see what new poetry books have trickled in. A couple of weeks ago, I spotted “The Essential Basho” translated by Sam Hamill.
After thumbing through a few pages, I knew I had to have it.
What I learned was that Basho made several walking journeys around Japan in the 1600s. Often accompanied by a student, he walked from town to town seeking out shrines and temples, natural landmarks, and other artistic souls along the way.
And as he went he not only wrote haiku, but he kept a journal. He would explain where he was and what he was seeing as he wrote his poetry.
Sometimes he would quote an ancient poem written about the same view he was seeing. Sometimes he would write his own poem. But sometimes he would humbly decline to add anymore.
Basho hired a boat at a town called Yoshizaki so he could sail out to see the famous pine trees at Shiogoshi. He was well aware of the poem written some 500 years before by Saigyo.
All the long night
and moonlight drips
through Shiogoshi pines.
Basho declined to write a poem of his own.
“This one poem says enough,” Basho wrote. “To add another would be like adding a sixth finger to a hand.”
But, when he does write his own poems, Basho often provides the setting to give the reader enough context to better understand the meaning.
For example, when he writes this haiku, it is possible to get a feel for what is going on from just the text itself:
If’ I’d walked Walking-
stick Pass, I’d not have fallen
from my horse.
But it means much more when you read Basho’s explanation.
“They say the ancient poet Sogi nearly starved to death in the high village of Hinaga,” Basho wrote. “I hired a horse to help me over Walking-stick Pass. Unfamiliar with horses and tack, both saddle and rider took a tumble.”
In other cases, without the poet’s explanation, you won’t really understand the poem at all.
On the second day,
I’ll rise early to welcome
the oncoming spring.
On the surface, this seems like a sentimental, but shallow little seasonal poem. But when you read Basho’s context, it becomes a much more interesting and humorous glimpse into his soul.
“Reluctant to see the year-end,” Basho wrote, “I drank until well past midnight on New Year’s Eve, only to sleep through the morning on New Year’s Day.”
It turns out Basho missed the first morning of the new year because he was hung-over.
If he had been alive today, I’m pretty sure Basho would have been a blogger. I’m happy he left behind his journals to help us understand his work.
With such an illustrious example as his, I resolve to be less sheepish about providing commentary on my own poetry.