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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2050

It was back-to-school night, and the high school English teacher was telling the assembled parents about the ten-week writing module that the class had just begun. Explaining that instead of writing essays, the students would be writing poems, she gave two reasons for this departure from convention. First, a diagnostic...

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It was back-to-school night, and the high school English teacher was telling the assembled parents about the ten-week writing module that the class had just begun. Explaining that instead of writing essays, the students would be writing poems, she gave two reasons for this departure from convention. First, a diagnostic test had shown that the writing skills of the students were generally poor, and she believed that they weren’t ready to attempt full-scale essays. Second, the class was very large, and it would be impossible for her to read and respond to so many essays every week. The parents received this explanation with perceptible unease. One ventured a question: Wasn’t writing poetry actually more difficult than writing essays, demanding more highly developed and specialized language skills? “Oh, don’t worry,” the teacher answered; “we’ll be doing haiku.”

For American readers, haiku occupies an ambiguous position. On the one hand, there is a strong literary tradition running from Matsuo Bashō (1644-1694) and later Japanese masters of the form through twentieth century figures such as Ezra Pound to contemporaries such as Gary Snyder. While this tradition has never been well represented in college literature curricula, being largely restricted to specialists in classical Japanese, anthologies of Japanese haiku in English translation had an enormous impact on American poetry in the post-World War II period.

Haiku also played an important role in introducing elementary and high school students to poetry. In the 1960’s especially, many children first encountered poetry in the classroom through haiku. Instead of seeing poetry as an exalted but remote art—whatever those exotic creatures called poets do—students were encouraged to write poetry themselves in the form of haiku, just as in an art class students would be encouraged to draw and paint and not merely look at pictures. In this connection it is worth noting that Bashō himself was by profession a teacher of poetry.

For many readers, the fascination with haiku was part of a larger interest in Eastern thought, and particularly in Zen Buddhism. R. H. Blyth, whose extensive translations of haiku were among the most widely available in the 1950’s and 1960’s, believed that the distinctive qualities of haiku were rooted in Zen, and that perspective shaped his translations and commentary.

On the other hand, the very popularity of haiku has worked against it. Today many readers associate haiku with kitsch and cuteness and phony profundities. In part this reaction can be attributed to snobbery, but not entirely. Haiku’s ambiguous status also derives from questions raised by the form—questions that connect with larger debates about poetry.

Stripped of many of the formal conventions that governed the composition of traditional haiku in Japanese, haiku and haiku-influenced poetry in English have contributed to the now-dominant tendency to define poetry as a particular kind of perception or attention, with no reference to the forms and measures that have traditionally distinguished poetry from prose. At the same time, the radical simplicity of haiku focuses anxiety and skepticism about the nature of poetry (and the nature of art): “Is that all there is to it?”

For that reason, Makoto Ueda’s Bashō and His Interpreters: Selected Hokku with Commentarydeserves the widest possible readership. Obviously a must for anyone with an interest in Bashō and haiku, Ueda’s book should also attract readers and students of poetry generally; it would make an excellent text for a course in poetics. Ueda is a scholar of Japanese literature whose previous books include an introductory study of Bashō for Twayne’s World Authors series (Matsuo Bashō, 1970) and Modern Japanese Poets and the Nature of Literature (see Magill’s Literary Annual, 1984). Editor and translator of Modern Japanese Haiku: An Anthology (1976), Ueda is himself a poet as well.

Ueda’s concise introduction surveys the origins of haiku or hokku, the significance of Bashō’s work in the development of the form, and the substantial tradition of commentary on Bashō’s hokku in Japan. Hokku had its beginnings in the linked-verse form known as renga, which dominated Japanese poetry in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. The first verse of a renga sequence was called a hokku (“opening verse”); it was written in the 5-7-5 syllable pattern familiar to modern readers of haiku. The second verse, a waikiku (“accompanying verse”), consisted of two phrases of seven syllables each. The renga sequence would continue in this fashion, alternating between verses in the 5-7-5 pattern and verses in the 7-7 pattern; while the sequences varied in length, the most common length was one hundred verses.

Renga was court poetry, typically composed at festive occasions by a group of poets who took turns trying to outdo one another with the verses they contributed to the sequence. Like court poetry in many cultures, renga was a sophisticated form of entertainment, a literary game. As William J. Higginson observes in his indispensable guide, The Haiku Handbook (1985), “Games have rules. By the time of Bashō, three centuries later, one could buy a book of rules for writing renga.” One such rule was that the opening verse had to specify the season of the year in which the poem was composed—the origin of the traditional requirement that every haiku must include a “season word.”

In the sixteenth century, an offshoot of renga known as haikai (“playful style”) became popular. While traditional renga was primarily court poetry, haikai was broader in its appeal. In Ueda’s words, haikai poets helped to “democratize poetry”; in diction, imagery, and subject matter they were relaxed and often cheerfully vulgar, with an emphasis on humorous and incongruous juxtapositions.

Meanwhile, as anthologies of renga were compiled there was an increasing tendency to treat hokku as individual poems, detached from their original context in a renga or haikai sequence. In time, poets began composing hokku as autonomous poems.

It was the nineteenth century Japanese poet Masaoka Shiki who established the critical distinction “between the hokku as the opening verse of a haikai sequence and the hokku as an independent, self-contained poem. To make the distinction clear, Shiki gave the name haiku to the latter type of hokku.” Shiki’s distinction prevailed. The only problem is that many of Bashō’s poems which we in the West have come to know as haiku were in fact originally written to open haikai sequences. Bashō, Ueda notes, did not sharply distinguish between the two varieties of hokku. Accordingly, and in keeping with current usage in Japan, Ueda uses the term “hokku” in this book “to designate all seventeen-syllable verses written before the end of the Edo period (1600-1868), regardless of whether they actually opened haikai sequences.”

The body of Bashō and His Interpreters consists of 255 hokku by Bashō, with each poem accompanied by selected critical commentary. The poems are presented chronologically and are grouped by year from 1675 to 1694, the year of Bashō’s death; poems written before 1675 (there are only a handful here) are grouped in larger units. Ueda provides a biographical summary preceding each year’s selection of poems.

Ueda’s procedure for each poem is to begin with his English translation, followed by a transliteration of the Japanese original and a corresponding “literal translation” that follows the original word-for-word, insofar as that is possible. Some poems feature a headnote by Bashō, given in italics. Following the poem in its various versions is the commentary, consisting of brief observations drawn by Ueda from a wide range of Japanese poets and critics; Ueda frequently prefaces the commentary with a note providing background information. (The commentators are listed with brief biographical sketches at the end of the volume; the end matter also includes a glossary, indexes of Bashō’s hokku in English and Japanese, and an index of names.) Poem and commentary together rarely exceed a single page. In every respect this layout is well conceived, and it has been superbly executed by Stanford University Press.

These are conventional translations. Instead of a Poundian “making new,” they offer flat, prosaic verbal surfaces and unarresting rhythms—presumably a result of hewing closely to the letter of the original. Still, short of reading the poems in Japanese, Bashō and His Interpreters may provide the best available opportunity to encounter Bashō afresh, shedding as much as we can the preconceptions and associations that have accreted around haiku. The combination of Ueda’s translations with the commentary permits us to experience something of the native strangeness of these poems.

Here is a characteristic hokku, written by Bashō in 1686:

Cold night

the sound of a water jar

cracking on this icy night
as I lie awake

What is immediately apparent is the smallness of scale, both in the sense that the poem centers on a moment in time and in the sense that its subject is small, homely. Early forms of literature tend to emphasize the heroic, the marvelous. Interest in the everyday is a late development, as is the fascination with single, sharply observed moments.

Writing about the “particularist aesthetics” of Gerard Manley Hopkins, Walter Ong has observed that the “meticulously detailed, particularized description of something under direct observation is quite foreign to verbal expression in oral cultures across the world and it does not come early in the development of writing or even of print” (Hopkins, the Self, and God, 1986). While Bashō does not approach the extraordinary detail of Hopkins’ poems and journals, the “meticulously detailed, particularized description of something under direct observation” is one of the defining qualities of his art. (Like Hopkins, Bashō often combined verbal descriptions with sketches or paintings; like Hopkins, he sought to achieve a “deep seeing” that went beneath the surface of things.)

This aspect of Bashō’s hokku is frequently emphasized in the commentary, where again and again a critic or fellow poet remarks upon the novelty of Bashō’s subject matter and the precision of his observation. For example, a hokku from 1694, “spring rain—/ down along a wasp’s nest, water/ leaking through the roof,” elicits praise for Bashō’s discovery of a sight never previously registered in poetry, while a hokku of 1687, “the first snow/ just enough to bend/ the daffodil leaves,” is praised for the accuracy of its perception.

For late twentieth century readers, steeped in what Ong calls the “total immersion of present culture in particularist aesthetics,” it requires an imaginative leap to appreciate the novelty of such descriptions. The effort is worth making, however; it yields a fresh perspective, for example, on Pound and Imagism, William Carlos Williams, the Objectivists—that whole current of modern American poetry. These lines from Williams’ “Nantucket,”

Flowers through the window
lavender and yellow

changed by white curtains—

Smell of cleanliness—

written some 250 years after Bashō, nevertheless share a sense of the novelty of his project in registering with fidelity the visible world.

The “smallness” of Bashō’s hokku has another aspect. While few of his poems could be called cryptic, their telegraphic style requires the reader to do a certain amount of filling in. Moreover, it is clear from the commentary that the critical tradition in Japan encouraged a more freely associative reading than would be common in Western criticism: the poem becomes a point of departure for the critic’s personal response. At the same time, the spareness of Bashō’s texts in proportion to the bulk of commentary guaranteed ongoing debate.

Responding to the hokku “the sound of a water jar,” quoted above, the eighteenth century haikai poet Hori Bakusui suggested that the cracking of the jar had reminded Bashō of his physical infirmity. In contrast, Kato Shuson, a twentieth century haiku poet who is also a prominent Bashō scholar, believes that the poem is intended to convey a mood of “intense loneliness.” The commentary itself becomes the occasion for further commentary. One critic’s speculation that Bashō was awakened by the cracking of the jar “in the middle of the night” prompts this rejoinder from another critic: “The hokku’s concluding phrase suggests that the time was near dawn, the coldest time of night. I do not think it was midnight.” Such juxtapositions, arranged by the compiler, confirm that, along with his many other gifts, Ueda possesses a Bashōesque sense of humor.

Sources for Further Study

Choice. XXX, October, 1992, p. 308.

Library Journal. CXVII, May 1, 1992, p. 80.

Monumenta Nipponica. XLVII, Fall, 1992, p. 392.

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