Basho in poetry searched for "a fresh novel taste that gives life in both heart and words" yet scholars say Basho was: “impersonal, detached, and objective” – “serious and humorless”– “at times, cold-hearted, inhuman.” – “to have spent much of his time in a state of perpetual despondency.” - "The finest of Basho’s poems seem to be devoid of ordinary human emotion.” Such is the Basho Image. From what selection came these “finest of Basho’s poems”? The problem here really is that poems “devoid of ordinary human emotion” are the poems scholars consider “finest” - so these are the only poems they tell us about. The many Basho poems full to the brim with human emotion and human sensuality are ignored because they do not fit into the Basho image.
It has become customary to consider Basho’s works as consisting of his haiku, travel journals, and occasionally a few poetic essays – as if these were all he wrote – when actually they are no more than 40%. Furthermore, the Basho haiku selected for consideration, the famous poems of Basho that determine his reputation, are either impersonal nature poems or sad lonely verses about poverty, growing old, and dying. For instance, the next three haiku are taught in every Japanese high school, and students have to memorize them to pass an exam: first, this haiku of deep pathos for the “traces” of warriors who died on a hilltop 500 years before Basho came here:
And these two very famous nature haiku
Aside from the person experiencing the moment. no human being appears in the scene. I appreciate these verses, yet prefer Basho’s ‘sketches’ of active, lively humanity:
As she works, long hair comes loose from the band in back and falls before her eyes. Fingers and palms are covered with sticky residue. Without thinking or breaking her stride, she reaches up with the clean surface on side of her hand (above the thumb and forefinger) to tuck the hair behind her ear – with nothing getting on her hair.
Those familiar with Basho haiku may know WRAPPING RICE CAKE because it is a haiku, however it is difficult to find anyone who knows of the linked verses in which Basho foregoes the old and desolate to explore the joy of youth and femininity:
Smooth cotton cloth has been rinsed and is hanging on a line to dry in the breeze; overhead a lark sings brightly rising to heaven. Japan idolizes the joyful sparkle of teenage girls -- as in J-Pop girl groups and it is interesting to see this consciousness in Basho 350 years ago. The flock of girls in their pretty robes, going to have fun, chatting and laughing with each other, complement the clarity and freshness of the first stanza. Clean white fabric, skylark, cherry blossoms, and group of happy girls, all rise up together.
Almost no one knows of this exquisite study of female experience:
Only Basho could produce so feminine a poem: feminine in concern for facial beauty and cleanliness, the femininity of village women at work, women with breasts, nourishing life, and women’s hopes for children’s future, all wrapped up in five short lines.
Instead of these positive, life-affirming verses, students lelarn a few haiku Basho wrote in the 18 months from winter, 1680 to summer, 1682 when a famous Zen priest was staying near Basho’s hut and Basho wrote numerous haiku that show a desolate feeling typical of Chinese Zen ‘recluse poetry’ – for instance this 1681 haiku about the basho or banana plant growing in his garden, the plant which gave him his pen-name:
And two more freezing cold desolate poems from the same 1681-82 period.
The “sewer rat” is himself trying to get a mouthful of water from his frozen water jug. The poems drip with desolate loneliness. Ueda says, “The hyperbolic style poeticizing loneliness is also from Tang verse…The elements of Chinese verse are made to serve his prime purpose: to present his own feelings.” Yes, to present his own feelings –his self-absorption in loneliness and misery. Such verses fit very nicely into the image of Basho as an austere, impoverished, and lonely point-saint - however these haiku can not be said to “characteristize of Basho.” They only characterize this 18-month period when Basho was studying with a high-ranking Zen Monk.
Throughout the thirty years of his linked verses, the poems of astonishment and wonder outweigh those of sadness and gloom – although only the latter are translated and discussed. Here is a superb example of a renku link that scholars do not show us:
A woman make herself beautiful before giving birth – as in this season Mother Earth puts on green make-up . The lovely infant rice plants look like ordinary grass, showing no sign that four months later they will yield the staple food of Asia. We watch Basho’s mind go from rice sprouting to a woman giving birth to the child she loves, then return to Mother Earth giving birth to countless billions of plants. Woman merges with Earth, both giving birth to love – with no trace of that desolate melancholy the Japanese call sabi, or wabi-sabi. All is light and life-giving.
Such life-giving feminine verses by Basho are unknown to everyone, escept a few scholars, and do not contribute to his reputation – but when they become known, they extinguish the Basho Image. You can also see the Basho Image defeated in Articles D-4 COMPASSION, D-6 LAUGHING ALONG, D-2 JOY AND FUN,
The known works of Basho are just one third of all he wrote and spoke. The major part of Basho poetry, his renku and tanka, are unknown to almost everybody, except a few scholars. This vast one-third of Basho works includes several hundred positive, life-affirming sketches of humanity – all unknown and not contributing to the Basho Image. Also unknown are prose passages on friendship, human kindness, and sexual passion; and several hilarious parodies; unknown are personal letters to close friends and his older brother; and passages of spoken word recorded by followers; an ocean of Basho humanity so vast the 2000 pages I have compiled is only a fraction of it, these magnificent resources for human self-understanding.
To discover the “real Basho” we need to go beyond his haiku and travel journals to his letters where he can share his joy in knowing of his childhood friend Ensui’s newborn granddaughter:
To whittle away and eventually demolish the Basho image, we enter his letters, such as this passage in a letter to Uko where he encourages her to feel solidarity with another woman Chigetsu.
Chigetsu must have told Basho she got a letter from Uko. He praises the gentleness of woman, and also the solidarity of women. He seems to be building bridges between two women followers.
Yasui Masahiro notes the “gentleness and humanity” (yasashisa to ningenmi) in Basho’s letters to women not found in his letters to men. “We feel he does not 'lift his head' -- be arrogant and over- bearing – to a woman. He makes an impression with simple direct expressions. Take up any Basho letter to a woman and be touched by his unique charm.” His “unique charm” that drives away the Basho Image.
These works are a profound legacy every Japanese, every Asian, every human, can enjoy, learn from, and be inspired by – if only we could forego that image we have of Basho, and read what he actually wrote about our common humanity:
Walking together in town, the lovers are surprised to see, and be seen by “the boss.” He is cool and does not say a word, but her heart shrinks with haji -- shyness, bashfulness, embarrassment. She wonders what he is thinking: does he imagine her naked and doing IT, does he condemn her for having sex without marriage? She clutches the handle to make the umbrella cover as much as possible without any movements that might attract the boss’s attention. In Basho’s mind she is Japanese, but in our minds, she can be any adolescent feeling that “shame” being seen by an authority figure who gets the picture.
When we read that a scholar says “Basho takes detachment from human emotion to the point of complete dehumanization not only in his poetry and literary theory but also in his own life.”we must realize that yes, this is the reputation Basho has, but NO! these words have nothing to do with the reality of his works on humanity. Nothing to do with a Basho stanza such as the next stanza:
Basho focuses on the woman’s activity of climbing the hill, then reveals her destination, to flood our hearts with emotion. She could be anywhere in the world, at any time.But where does this stanza come from? Here it is with the previous stanza setting up the scene:
Our sense of who this woman is deepens. Because she plays the 13-string Japanese harp, we feel her character - delicate, precise -- and feel her regret as she climbs the hill. Yet everything about her is a mystery – and forever interesting.
One harmful bit of the Basho Image is the widespread notion that Basho is a specialty, for a select group that can understand. Everyone is so convinced of this that they will not even look at the works in this article – and so the most pro-female, child-centered, and life affirming works in world literature lie in obscure anthologies, and when I die they will die with me – unless YOU do something to bring them works to general knowledge.
The Basho image is cemented into place by focusing on this haiku written on his deathbed, said, in a hundred books and sites, to be Basho’s final poem:
“Fields” may represent the body while dreams are the spirit which animates the flesh for a while and then passes on. In the spring and summer and autumn of life, dreams wander about fields bright in the sunshine and alive with birdsong. But then comes winter, time for dreams to wander off into eternity.
This famous haiku is the essence of sabi, that “medieval aesthetic of old age, loneliness, resignation, and tranquility” that scholars relish in Basho – although Basho himself preferred Lightness. Although Basho did in fact write one more verse, scholars have taken ON A JOURNEY TAKEN ILL to be Basho’s final wisdom. Ueda translated Higuchi Isao saying that the verse is: “a most fitting conclusion to the life of Basho, who pursued sabi all his life.” No! Basho did not pursue sabi all his life – and this was not his final poem. The next day he wrote a second death poem, a rejuvenation in his spirit, another casting off of the heaviness and negativity of Japanese thought, a reaffirmation of Lightness as the Way of Basho.
Instead of an old man sadly dying on a withered field, we gaze in wonder at young green life flowing away in the fast-moving mountain stream. The needles fall into the rushing water, swirl about, and rush away leaving no traces of their existence, no possibility of ever being seen gain. The flow never returns and what is gone is gone forever.
Basho wrote both poems on his deathbed. ON A JOURNEY TAKEN ILL is world-famous and everywhere represents Basho, “the poet of sabi.” Yamamoto Kennichi says Basho made the image of a traveler on a withered moor “symbolize his entire life” – however I believe the scholars have made that image symbolize their version of Basho’s entire life. CLEAR CASCADE is known to scholars, but ignored. If Basho is to be a poet for old men , then ON A JOURNEY TAKEN ILL has all the desolate loneliness they could wish for – however if Basho is to be the poet of youth and aliveness, then we need CLEAR CASCADE as counterweight to the gloom and doom of ON A JOURNEY TAKEN ILL.
To know the real Basho, consider this message in his Will, dictated two days before his death; on a journey dying in Osaka, Basho sends gratitude to his patron, follower, and friend Sampu in faraway Edo:
We feel something very wonderful here, the warmth and love in Basho’s heart. If ever the humanity in Basho can get beyond his reputation for being literary, obtuse, impersonal, or a select group, he may someday (maybe after I am gone) be recognized as the most gentle and personal poet who ever lived.