How can a writer so light-hearted and funny as Basho be judged as “serious, humorless” and “in a state of perpetual despondency”? Scholars unfamilar with his renku and haibun know not the funny works there – however many of his haiku are amusing. Maybe the scholars are so intent on seeing sabi, or desolate loneliness in Basho, that humor and fun passes by under their radar. I, on the other, strive to highlight the humor and enhance it with amusing commentary:
Dogs will eat anything, even garbage, but this one passes on poetry. Let’s have fun with Basho!
Mugura used to be the name of any weed that grew thick and covered anything in its path. Basho here means kana-mugura (literally metal-mugura ) which has no pretty flowers and a tough wiry stalk with the strength to climb tall trees and buildings; also the underside of the many, many leaves are covered with tiny prickles so they stick to things like Velcro does. Kana-megura has no name in English and since ‘ironweed’ is already taken we call it “wireweed”
.In the mountains of Kai:
In the mountains of Kai (north-west of Mount Fuji) Basho meets an old guy, a wood cutter or someone like that. Basho tries to start a conversation but the man, being of rather limited intellect and verbal skills, just stands there staring blankly. Basho imagines that the wireweed all over the fence beside the road has grown up around the man’s jaw to lock it shut.
In MOUNTAIN HICK’S we see Basho’s comic genius. He blends together three elements:
1) Real situation: the hick standing there silent for some time.
2) Seasonal awareness: the nature of wireweed in the summer.
3) Fantasy image: the months and months the man would have to stand in that place for wireweed to actually surround his jaw.
From the various combinations of these three elements comes the absurd humor of this verse. The repetition of ‘w’ sounds following the repetition of ‘l’ sounds adds to the humor of the verse. Without those repeat sounds this haiku would not be so funny.
Somewhere back in the mists of time, someone in China decided that the star Vega is a Weaver married to Altair, the Cowherd. But they just played around and made love all the time and did not keep up with their weaving and herding duties, so the Sky Father banished them to opposite sides of Heaven’s River, which is where we now see them. Only on one night of the year, Tanabata, the 7th Night of the lunar 7th Moon, does the old man allow Vega to cross the River to join her husband for some heavenly sex. Basho is sympathetic and offers the Stars a solution to their problem.
“Suigaku” (“Water-scholar”) is the nickname of a man from Kyushu who invented various aquatic devices, including a water-wheel boat the Japanese, accustomed to oars and sail, found rather magical. He brought his boat to Edo and used it as a charter ferry for men to arrive in style at the Yoshiwara pleasure quarters on the banks of the Kanda River. People say Suigaku’s boat goes from Edo Bridge to the Yoshiwara in “the time it takes hair to sway.” So romantic, these Japanese. In EVEN SUIGAKU we see Basho’s comic genius. He blends together three elements:
1) Real situation: Mr. Suigaku’s business ferrying men across the river to the pleasure quarters.
2) Seasonal awareness: the clarity and brilliance of the early autumn sky for Tanabata.
3) Fantasy image: the romantic story of the Two Stars and its various embellishments through the centuries.
From the various combinations of these three elements comes the absurd humor of this verse. So look to the stars one summer or autumn night, locate Vega and Altair and Deneb -- the triangle of bright stars in the sky overhead --and then imagine it is raining and Mr. Suigaku has taken the night off from his usual business to ferry Vega across the River of Heaven to her waiting lover. It makes the night sky fun.
Sampu, one of Basho’s first followers in Edo, three years younger, was the eldest son of a fish mercantile house in Nihonbashi, financial center of Edo; his company supplied fish to the Shogun’s castle. In 1680, age 33, Sampu is taking over the business from his father. He also loves poetry and, having followed Basho for seven years, likes to have fun with his Poetry Master. Sampu arranged a contest in which many poets submitted verses for Basho to judge. The theme, chosen by Sampu, was ‘Vegetables.’ The verses were published along with Basho’s introduction which contains this bizarre succession of parodies. So, let’s talk about vegetables:
Things start off real enough: Kanda Suda (across the river from Akihabara) was the largest produce market in the City – but the kirin, a legendary beast of ancient China, is not likely to be transporting vegetables in Japan. The phoenix, also legendary, burns to death and rises from the ashes, so really doesn’t need eggs, but if (IF!) she had them, and if there was a market for them, they would certainly need to be carefully wrapped in soft spongy rice bran to remain unbroken on the back of a kirin. (No bubble wrap or Styrofoam peanuts in those days.) Zingiber is a kind of ginger grown in the tropics, and watermelons do not ripen till mid-summer. Ginseng roots are a delicacy favored by some, but who would buy the leaves? The Chinese love to paint things red (Witness their restaurants); Basho imagines that because these are Chinese peppers, this makes them turn red in autumn. Communist peppers.
His second line brings in a chant from a Noh play:
Do you see? He is indirectly (very indirectly!) praising the Tokugawa Shogunate for maintaining peace throughout Japan. The kamisama must be pleased because they have brought no severe typhoons (“wind does not rattle branches”) or floods (“rain does not move ginger in ground”) allowing Japanese (such as Sampu’s family) to build trade networks which bring produce from faraway provinces (and even from the Twilight Zone). Tokibi is maize, American corn, which the Japanese call ‘Chinese millet,’ although before it was in China, it had to come across the ocean from South America – but maize is a grain and doesn’t have branches.
Absurd as it is, the passage is praise for the prosperity brought by the Pax Tokugawa. Trade is flourishing. Markets are full of food and mothers can buy for their children. So much prosperity that Sampu can afford to leave his business to his subordinates while he spends his time on a poetic theme as mundane as ‘Vegetables.’ How the wealthy merchant must have enjoyed Basho’s parody of his expertise, food marketing and trade.
Sampu has presented me a light robe for summer wear:
Basho puts on his robe of linen as fine as a cicada wing, and goes flying, clumsily, around the room.
The Master of Crazy Poetry is Chikusai, the hero of a comic novel popular at this time, a doctor in Kyoto who became so obsessed with crazy poetry that he stopped seeing patients and set out for Edo in tattered paper coat and kerchief, calling out his poems. Upon arriving in Nagoya he set out a sign claiming to be “The Greatest Quack Doctor under Heaven”.
The savage winds have made a complete mess of his robes. The verse is a gag, but one that brings some cheer to Basho walking along in the bone-chilling wind and, with a bit of Groucho Marx in the translation, may amuse us 300 years later.
Basho and his follower Tokoku, using the alias Mangiku-maru, were travelling together and sent a letter to Basho’s childhood friend Isen in Iga with this diagram enclosed. Imagine, a cartoon by Basho. When he was in Iga, Tokoku (Sorry, Mangiku-maru) stayed in Ensui’s house, so maybe with the help of this drawing Ensui can imagine the sound of his snore. Ten bu (parts) make a sun (inch) and ten sun make a shaku (foot). So, the bulging part of the snore is 47 inches wide and all that sound comes from a hole just 1.2 inches in diameter (I love the precision.) Then on the right side, the snore rattles along like a naga-mochi , a heavy wooden chest on wheels kept near the door, in case of fire, used to get valuables away from the house. However wheel technology is not so advanced in 17th century Japan (no axles, no shock-absorbers, just a wooden wheel on wooden axle) so the heavily laden chest shakes about as it rolls – which is how the snore ends. It is difficult for me to study this ‘diagram of a snore’ without laughing uncontrollably.
Yamanoue no Okura, 1000 years before Basho, wrote this R-rated tanka.
Tonight for Tanabata it is raining, so Basho and his buddy Sampu drink some sake and have some fun with the Tanabata legend He begins with a quick review of the various streams of the myth:
One legend says the Weaver crosses an Arch of Magpies clutching to each other over the River -- or she rides across the River on a leaf of paper-mulberry, kaji, similar to the word for ‘rudder’ allowing Basho to make another pun. Yagata means a residence with a roof, either on land or on water. Since we are talking about the “River” of Heaven here, we translate ‘houseboat’— sort of a floating love hotel—but since the ‘River’ is a total fantasy, the whole idea is nonsense. Basho nonsense.
Basho plays around with this tanka by the famed 9th century beauty and poetess Ono no Komachi:
“Robe of moss” (koke no koromo) is a ‘pillow-word’ that decorates the verse without actually meaning what it says. This is just a blanket, but the imagery of moss fits the ‘on a rock’ part and adds beauty to the phrase.
Henjo, a male poet of her time, replied,
Henjo was a very typical man.
Now back again to the 17th century and Tanabata. The wealthy Sampu, who has generously supported Basho since he first came to Edo 20 years ago, is not quite satisfied with that “robe of moss.” It sounds pretty tacky to him.
Sampu can easily afford to give (not lend) a silk raincoat (an expensive designer-label) to Vega waiting in the rain of Basho’s verse. We volley the ball from Basho to Komachi, over to Henjo, up to Sampu, and back to Basho.
The woman poet Chiyo-jo asks:
Her question is one which should concern feminists.
The nebu is a tree about ten feet tall with red-and-white blossoms In July. The two characters for the name of this tree mean ‘sleeping together, sharing pleasure’ because at night the leaves draw together like lovers in bed.
Because they are Japanese stars, they are shy about being seen. Basho down here on Earth, Basho imagines that the stars up there resent him watched them through such suggestive leaves. There are no love-hotels in Heaven, so the Two Stars have to ‘do it in the road’-- alongside the Milky Way, on Tanabata when everyone on Earth is watching. How do stars do It? With a condom, I hope. There are already enough stars.
Estrogen drives female cats into ‘heat’ several times a year, but early spring is most common. Only females go into heat, but their heat drives the males to emit testosterone driving them to aggression. The pathos of cats at the mercy of their hormones shows us how pitiful we are in love. Multiple males will be attracted to a female in heat. The males will fight over her, and the victor wins the right to mate. … When cats mate the male bites the scruff of the female neck so she cannot escape ... The male cat’s penis has spines which point backwards. Upon withdrawal of the penis, the spines rake the walls of the female‟s vagina, which may be the trigger for ovulation in cats. Thus the female gives a loud YOWL!! as the male pulls out of her. (I’ve heard that sound.)
The sex-crazed she-cat ‘commutes’ (kayoi) through the kitchen, climbing the stove then jumping out the window, so many times a day on her trips outside ‘where the boys are’ that the baked clay structure is starting to crumble.
Fujiwara Teika wrote what may be the funniest of all classical tanka:
Basho wrote what may be the funniest of all haiku:
Mataudo means ‘complete person‘ but is used sarcastically in comic plays to actually mean a fool. The lady-cat is so drunk on sex-hormones that she walks right on top of a dog. But the dog is asleep and only half wakes up and gazes around a bit, wondering ‘what was that?’, then goes back to sleep. Basho compares the dog to a ‘complete person‘, a saint who can face any situation with equanimity.
Autumn is lovely, with sweet orange persimmons on the trees, tasty chestnuts escaping from their burrs, golden fields of rice stalks heavy with grain -- until the crows come by. Miserable crows!
Of course Basho feels sympathy for frogs in ponds. Crows do not follow the dying as vultures do,
but they do stalk about looking for something dead.
A crow sees a squid lying inert on the sea and thinks it ready meat, but then finds those ten arms stronger than its beak. Basho read somewhere (maybe in National Geographic) that a crow can be so consumed by greed that he dives into the water, trying to catch fish the way cormorants do, but since crows cannot swim at all, he drowns. (Sounds more like a turkey than a crow).
Basho insults the crow with comparison to a monk who sells Buddhism for personal profit. “Buddha’s family” are those devote ones who really and truly feel compassion for all creatures – even mosquitoes and cockroaches – but they too succumb to the lower emotions when it comes to crows.
Houyi, in ancient China, was the God of Archery. The Chinese say the Sun is a Three-Legged Golden Crow. Actually, there were ten such suns living in a mulberry tree in the Eastern Sea. Each day one of the sun-crows would be driven through the sky. But one day in 2170 BCE, they grew tired of this routine and decided to all rise at once. Global warming was intense and everything started to die. Yao, the Emperor of China, asked the God of the Eastern Heaven for help. This God sent for Houyi who proceeded to shoot one sun-crow after another. Yao pleaded for him to let one sun live, and that is one we have today. And if that divine crow up there hears what you crows are doing on Earth, he (or she?) may blast you away.
What’s a crow going to do with three legs?
The large despised scavenger crow lords over the scene, strutting about in arrogance, cawing harshly, grabbing anything edible. Chigetsu wrote
The O-hotoki was a Shinto ceremony performed around Kyoto in the 11th moon. While a sacred dance was performed in front of the shrine, food such as mikan are offered to the kamisama in prayer for warmth in the winter to come. The na at the end of the upper segment expresses a sort of resigned contempt—for which I translate “soo…” Chigetsu captures the essence of our relationship with those miserable, arrogant birds that fly wherever they want, not giving a shit what we think of them and how they get their snacks.
The sea slug (or sea cucumber), a soft sac of rubbery flesh with inner tube from mouth to anus, flourishes
in winter among the rocks in shallow water. They are eaten raw in vinegar (by some folks).
Yum yum, sea slug!
A fisherman or woman has gathered sea slugs and left them in a bucket on the rocks. The head of a sea slug can hardly be distinguished from the other end, and here in the frozen slimy mess, one creature cannot be distinguished from another. The verse is bitter cold and gruesome, yet some may agree with me that it is one of Basho’s funniest haiku – a kind of sick funny.
I bet you can hardly wait to find out what is going on here: A VIP on an Imperial mission wears purple robes forbidden to ordinary humans. He is august, inspiring awe and reverence. Basho makes him a monk sent by the Emperor of Japan to China to collect Buddhist scriptures and bring to Japan. And now for the final twist: in Japanese mythology, when “Her Augustness Luxuriant Jewel Princess” was pregnant and leaving the Kingdom of the Sea, her father, the Sea God, sent a crocodile to escort her boat. Now does the link make sense?
The God of Poverty inhabits a person or house to bring poverty and misery; nowadays, in manga and anime, he is depicted as a skinny dirty old man in rags.
After a tsunami or typhoon, with no money to pay for repairs, man-made structures gradually disappear in the watery abundance. From this sketch of poverty, Bashō makes another bizarre link – to a one-night stand waking up, before she combs her hair or puts on make-up, as ragged and unkempt as “storehouses and fences overgrown with water weeds (That’s bad. Very bad). The Japanese have no female form of this deity; since she is a women, I have dubbed her “Goddess of Poverty.”
The Sarashina Journal, Basho’s most hilarious work, tells of his trip with Etsujin over the Kiso Road through the mountains of Nagano (the Japan Alps). Donald Keene remarks that, of all Basho’s prose works, this is the one paid the least attention. If people discovered how much humor and fun there is in this journal, it would demolish any notion that Basho was “serious and humorless.”
The senior among his Nagoya followers, a doctor named Kakei, does not think it a good idea for a middle-aged man with a chronic bowel disease to go on such a journey on foot, so he sends along a horse and servant. Basho describes his followers in action before the fellowship leaves.
Thus Basho sets the tone for what is to come.
Saying that the monk is “without interest or humor” makes him hilarious.
Ruth Benedict, an anthropologist who studied the Japanese just after World War II, recognized that they are ruled by their concept of on, pronounced like the English word ‘own’. This small word can be translated ‘obligation,’ but Benedict emphasized that it means much more than that English word does. Benedict says, “On is in all its uses a load, an indebtedness, a burden, which one carries as best one may.” Doing a favor for a Japanese imposes a burden which can only be relieved by repaying the favor.
The dull and stuffy monk feels an on to Basho and Etsujin for helping him, so as they strap his trunk load of Buddhist artifacts to the horse, he begins to repay his obligation by insisting that their skimpy backpacks go on too. Still not satisfied, the monk refuses to let Basho walk, because that would suggest that the monk’s luggage was keeping Basho from riding. The reality that Basho was walking before they met the monk, and that he very much wants to continue walking now, does not matter. The monk persists, and so “I am made to ride on top” (sono ue ni nosu) perched on top of everything just to prove to this old fart that he is not imposing -- which he most certainly is.
Donald Keene notes that some scholars who believe Basho was a “poet-saint” are “shocked” at how unsympathetic he is to this poor old man—however, when that poor old man Don Quixote (or his counterpart in the Roadrunner cartoons, Wily Coyote) gets beat up and thrashed in one chapter after another, is that funny?
Is it funny when Groucho Marx insults the stout Margaret Dumont?
If we allow it to be funny, it will be funny. So let us laugh, along with Basho:
Basho lays the scene out before us with lively specific verbs: “take out… close… tap… lean forward.”
Then comes the monk and his insufferable meddling, the way his phrases sound so boring, just like the monk himself. It’s all so comical. Because the monk talks, and talks, and talks of Amida, the Bodhisattva who vows to save all humanity, he must belong to one of the Pure Land sects which draw their vast memberships from the common people and seek salvation by endlessly repeating Namu Amida Butsu, “Devotion to Amida Buddha.” The sects teach that each repetition brings salvation not only to the chanter, but to all humanity. Like everyone else, they have their miracles and divine visions, all of which the monk tells Basho. The monk never asks, so he never learns that Basho belongs to the esoteric Shingon sect which does worship Amida, but through contemplation -- not by blabbing His Name all over the place.
Historian Charles Dunn notes that in the older sects of Japanese Buddhism – such as Shingon – the priests sought enlightenment only for themselves: “they were not remotely concerned with the masses.” The Pure Land sects were an innovation in Buddhism; they sought Enlightenment for everybody. They were do-gooders, as we see in Basho’s account.
Basho’s two passages on the ‘pious monk’ are his comic masterpiece, among the funniest moments in world literature. Compare this pious monk to a few other notorious windbags:
Polonius in Hamlet, Polonius who said,
then did exactly the reverse.
Or Dogberry in Much Ado about Nothing:
No, we won’t forget. Or Pumblechoock (love that name), the loquacious dum-dum in Dickens’ Great Expectations:
Basho uses fewer words than Shakespeare or Dickens, but through brevity – the soul of wit –
he reaches the same quality of humor.