Every Basho haiku in this chapter, and at least one stanza in every renku, is about cherry blossoms – however in each case “cherry blossoms” means human life or death. He may seem to be writing about cherry blossoms, but actually his and our thoughts go to the passage of human life.
The blossoms live their brief lives on the twigs, then fall to the ground to re-connect with their roots, as the Priest returns to his roots in the earth.
The usually serious Buddhist priests float along, and the otherwise demure self-effacing wives “slither” their hips in an erotic manner, all because of the exuberant “high” feeling that comes with cherry blossoms and spring
Basho sees the Sun Goddess Amaterasu in sunlight shining on cherry blossoms. One type of offering to this divine being is called taima, the same characters and pronunciation used for the hemp plant, as well as for the psychoactive cannabis. On YouTube you can see a Shinto priest fold a sheet of paper, traditionally of hemp fibers, in a zigzag pattern and attach to a wooden stick. The Ise Shrine, dedicated to the Sun Goddess, produces these in great numbers for priests to distribute to houses who have been supportive of the shrine. People wave the offerings before their household shrines to purify the space so their prayer reaches the Goddess.
The bird steals the hemp paper from the offerings; hemp fiber is strong, so makes a good nest for the bird of good fortune. Notice the links between the two stanzas: from blossoms to bird; from hemp offered to the gods to hemp stolen by birds, from Sun Goddess to female nesting bird, from miracles to good fortune.
In 1667, 23 year young Basho wrote:
Human feeling becomes one with the seasons, and cherry blossoms appear at the very happiest time of the year – so the Japanese have their school graduations and commencements in cherry blossom time. Japanese poets for ten centuries have dwelled on the sadness of cherry blossoms passing away just one week after they bloom, however young Basho sees only happiness without the sad. This verse is not much of a haiku, however as a statement about the young life and laughter in Basho’s 22 year old mind, it is superb.
From his childhood Basho was page and companion to Yoshitada, a young relative of the daimyo living in Iga Castle, a ten minute walk from Basho’s house. They studied and made linked verses poetry together.
Basho’s third recorded haiku, in 1664, was written when he was with Yoshitada:
Here is an old woman, who can remember her days (and nights) of youthful elegance; she blossoms again along with the cherry trees, and the memories within her also emerge like blossoms. She is an Icon of the Feminine, a symbol for something larger than herself, the continuity from youth to old age. Her memories are an elegant foreground to the memories-yet-to-form in the tanka SPRING PASSES BY written to a newborn baby girl.
Asked in 1690 to name a newborn girl, Basho chose Kasane, ordinarily not a personal name, but rather a verb with meaning in space “to pile up, in layers”, and also in time “to occur again and again, in succession.” He wrote this tanka to his goddaughter:
The double and triple meanings – layers of kimono, of years, of generations; wrinkles in the kimono and in her face -- overlap to form a web of blessing and hope for Kasane and all female children. Kasane, now your time begins, stretching to infinity before unfocused eyes. Soon you’ll be laughing and playing in the sunshine – that is, if no wars come and natural disasters, fatal illness, and financial ruin stay away too. One spring in youth, you shall be given your first blossom-kimono.
A formal kimono is a two-layer silk robe worn over an under robe, meticulously folded and tucked around the body in flat, even layers. The colors and pattern are chosen in harmony with the woman’s age. A blossom-kimono for a girl entering womanhood might be a soft pink with bold cherry blossom design on the lower portion. A thick brocade sash of a darker contrasting color encircles her waist. The red inner robe, suitable for a party, shows at the neckline, and where the left side of the skirt covers the right, margins of the kimono lining appear and disappear as she walks.
The springs shall come and go with clouds of pink blossoms filling the treetops to fall in a shower of petals as you blossom into a young lady. Each year as you sit with legs folded under you on the straw mat under the trees, creases shall form in the fabric. Carefully, as your mother shows you restore its silky smoothness for another year. I pray the day comes for you to pass this youthful kimono onto your daughter, the next “layer” of yourself, while you wear one more moderate in color and pattern – and this too passes onto her, and you to the dark sedate kimono of an older woman. So Kasane, may our nation remain at Peace and the happiness in your family pile up layer upon layer until wrinkles in the fabric no longer smooth out and you see wrinkles of old age cross your face. Do not despair, my child, for you live again as spring passes by and your granddaughters laugh and chatter in their blossom kimono.
In his few simple words Basho speaks of what concerns women: the succession of life, the happiness of children—the conditions of Peace, both social and family, in which little girls can dress up and party with relatives and friends, and life goes on generation after generation. The poem in five short lines encapsulates the existence of one woman from newborn to old age. It transcends the boundaries of literature to become something greater, an ode to Life.
Before he found the word “Lightness” for his poetic ideal, Basho called it “Newness.” He said,
Newness, or Lightness, is the beautiful part of poetry, as well as the part which contains the organs that give new life.
The young man Tangan stands before Basho’s eyes in the same place Basho can remember him as an infant with his father alive – however even without that background, the verse can bring us memories today if we allow “cherry blossoms” to suggest the passage of time and life.
Basho’s verse says absolutely nothing new about cherry blossoms or memories – instead he ‘sums up and conceals’ a thousand years of poetic expression on these blossoms and the memories that pass from one cherry blossom season to the next. His words are completely, utterly simple. No complications. Seven ordinary words with the most basic grammar possible in Japanese. Because the haiku says so little, it says so much. Because the words have a 3-4-3 rhythm of spoken beats plus pauses in the upper and lower segments, they are a musical composition.
Among the most memorable musical experiences in Japan is the song Sakura, a standard on the koto, or 13 string Japanese harp, commonly heard from loud speakers at famous sites for blossom viewing.
Traditional Folk Song
In spite of the happy child-like words, the song in a minor key sounds melancholy. At the top of the score, the instructions to the musician are “solemn, stately.” Almost every note in the score is a straight quarter note with just a few half-notes and paired eighth-notes. There are no complicated notes at all. Since the meter is 4/4, the four quarter notes in each measure roll out with complete regularity. Because of its extreme structural simplicity, Sakura is the first piece a student is given to practice on the koto.
About half of the total notes have a distinct rhythm: two quarter notes on the same pitch followed by a half note one step higher:
Sa ku RA, Sa ku RA.
I za YA, I za YA
With this distinct rhythm of notes, the song makes us remember it.
The koto is an instrument of refinement, played exclusively by women. Consider the following a riddle:
A proverb says “beautiful music can move dust.” Basho says that the tones from the koto -- probably playing Sakura -- rise to the roof and their beauty startles a bird sitting on the exposed beams, so the bird dislodges some dust which falls—like cherry petals fluttering down – onto the harp and the woman playing it. Although never mentioned, she is central to the verse: she makes the music and she notices the dust.
She has aged more in her face than normal for someone her height. Both her beauty and her suffering go into her harp notes, as well as into the letter she writes. Basho gives us some much to work with, yet leaves us infinite room to explore and create human feeling.
Watching her caress this precious, furry living being, I love her all the more. If only there were a way to keep the young and gentle from growing old and bitter.
In the previous stanza (not given here) Etsujin has a woman at a memorial service for her husband. Basho puts a small child on this bereaved woman’s lap, creating eternal beauty within the grief of losing a husband
Yugo takes this woman away from Etusjin’s memorial scene to a picnic under a cherry tree in bloom. Is she broiling the tofu on skewers over glowing coals in a fire pit while her baby sleeps on her lap? Or is someone else broiling the tofu for her while she watches? I choose to make her the active one; the link is clearer that way. Then we have all the elements for an icon – a symbol for something far greater: mother with child on lap surrounded by nature: under cherry blossoms, the most iconic of Japanese seasonal events, she prepares food to sustain life while life sleeps on her lap.
The following haiku in the spring of 1690 marks the birth of Basho’s poetic ideal of Lightness:
The scene the same in Basho’s time as in ours. The cold of early spring has passed, but there is still a chill in the air. Under a canopy of pinkish white blossoms, on ground scattered with petals, we lay out our favorite foods. The soup is brought to the picnic in an iron pot and heated over a fire. Namasu is raw vegetables or fish marinated in vinegar, popular at celebrations -- so the verse also contains the work of women preparing the food and cleaning up afterward. Amidst the excited chatter of girls and women in their blossom kimono, the songs and laughter of relatives and friends, some more petals have fallen on the food.
(according to Doho)
Shirane defines Lightness as: “a stress on everyday common subject matter, on the use of vernacular language, and on a relaxed rhythmical seemingly artless expression”
-- all of these conspicuous in UNDER THE TREES.
To those who love Western poetry, Basho’s verses of Lightness will seem so simple and Light they feel like nothing – but they leave the reader feeling good -- as opposed to Heaviness which relies on heavy word associations and allegory to make the reader feel sad. Even without tragedy or sensationalism or negativity, however, Basho reaches into the human heart. In this verse, he reaches through taste sensations – soup which could be so many possibilities and marinade which could be any raw vegetable or fish, however imbued with the sour taste of vinegar. The cherry blossoms scatter onto these two taste images; a liquid food and a sour salad. The final kana is “emotive, exclamatory,” so “hurray!” We are celebrating the season of warmth and new Life. Lightness is Us, real people having fun, sharing food.
In Spring of 1985 Basho wrote a haiku with a headnote about meeting his friend-since-youth Doho:
You have gone your way and I have gone mine. Our paths intersect at this cherry tree in full bloom as it has blossomed and withered each of these twenty years. The tree having “lived between our two lives” is Basho’s expression for that mysterious connection between friends transcending physical separation. Through poetry Basho presents a philosophy of friendship.
Once we find that first strand of while hair, the white hairs will increase while the friends decrease.
Two months before his death, although it was autumn, Basho wrote a Spring verse to his long-time followers aged like himself.
Though our faces are wrinkled and pockmarked by the ravages of time, our poems can be as fresh and vibrant as the first cherry blossoms to emerge on their twigs. About this verse Basho said
The rosy pinkish white of wild cherry tree blossoms fills the mountain side, giving them the rosy colors of the sky at daybreak.
The subject has decided to “go with the flow,” to let the disease run its course, either to decline or to recover on the body’s own healing resources.
Maruyama was a famous sumo wrestler in Basho’s time. A victory in sumo is recorded with a white circle, a loss with a black circle. Basho jumps from sumo to the board game of go, from Maruyama the wrestler to Maruyama a section of eastern Kyoto famous for cherry blossoms. The objective in go is to surround the opponent’s stones and remove them from the board. Here the one playing black is totally overwhelmed: white stones are everywhere on one side of the board, as if all the blossoms in the eastern half of Kyoto have fallen. Those of you who watch sumo, or play go, or hang out in Maruyama: this verse is for your especial enjoyment.
One of the more moving moments in Basho’s letters occurs in a letter to Kyoriku in Spring of 1693: Basho tells of his nephew dying of tuberculosis in Basho’s hut where Basho has nursed him since winter. He described the months of misery watching his nephew fade, but now spring has come.
Thank you, Basho, for your compassion. Even in this sad letter, Basho uses that word yorokobi, joy.
Basho wrote both of these stanzas in succession to end a renku sequence
He begins with some nonsense about striking the temple bell for “fun” so the deeply resonant tones will knock the cherry blossoms from their twigs and we can enjoy having them flutter through the air and land on us, the raving drunks composing this renku sequence. .
Basho’s headnote to the following, Spring amusement at Ueno, tells us the blossom-viewing picnic was at the same place, Tokyo’s Ueno Park, so popular for these parties today:
Ordinary women in Edo work hard every day and the annual picnic under the cherry trees at Ueno is one of the very few days of the year when she can have fun. Most Japanese women are slender, especially in the upper body, and the kimono emphasizes that slenderness. This woman is intoxicated by the beauty of cherry blossoms everywhere around her, on the trees, petals in the air and all over the ground, and also by the beverages she has drunk. Having shed her ladylike social inhibitions, she is acting bold and assertive.
She has borrowed a padded haori coat from one of the men at the party (women do not wear haori in Basho’s time）and put it on over her kimono, adding some bulk to her chest, shoulders, and arms, making her look manly. This is a working class party, so there are no samurai present, and no swords either, but she is using something long and thin to pretend. The Japanese says she inserts (sasu) the ‘sword’ under her obi, the thick brocade sash around her waist. Then she does the ever-popular “Hey you guys! See how long my sword is!” sending the party into hysterics. We see the woman in the center of the action, strong, vibrant, and playful (with the aid of sake).