Haiku, in spite of their world-wide fame, are only a small part of Basho’s poetry. Here we explorer 12 Basho stanzas from the first renku sequence he participated in, in Spring of 1665.
The majority of his verses are stanzas of renku, or linked verses, composed by a team of poets, each writing one stanza in succession, each somehow linked to the one before. Some of Basho’s most fascinating renku stanzas appear within Field by Snow, a sequence of 100 stanzas, the first sequence of the 307 Basho participated in. The year was 1665, and Basho about 21, living in his hometown of Iga. He was one of six poets; the leader of the event was Sengin, the poetry name of the young samurai Basho’s master Yoshitada, a young relative of the feudal lord of Iga Province.
This was 15 years before autumn of 1680 when Basho wrote his famous haiku about the crow on the withered branch, the haiku of deep wabi sabi (impersonal, desolate loneliness) which many scholars consider Basho’s first significant work. Everything Basho wrote before 1680, according to these scholars, is shallow and of little worth. I, on the other hand, have little interest in wabi sabi, and find these early poems express a profound youthful consciousness of human experience which may appeal to young people today who care not for desolate loneliness.
Of the hundred stanzas, Basho wrote 18 of which I present 12, along with sixteen stanzas by other poets which lead to or follow Basho’s stanzas. Each tsukeku has a commentary beginning with the volume and page number of the verse in the Basho Renku Zenchuu, plus the number of each stanza to give a sense of where in the full sequence it appears. Basho’s first stanza – the first of 1700 renku stanzas he wrote in 29 years -- follows two stanzas about a papier-mâché doll:
Till the twilight crescent
(1: 4-6; #s 4-7) The doll has lost its hair and paint, but the loving child does not mind how it looks. We feel her willpower, her drive to do something for the little one. She accepts that the doll must go, however persuades the person in charge to let her care for it until Doll Festival on the 3rd day of the 3rd Moon (early April by the Western calendar), obviously the highlight of the year for a doll. The child’s concern for the welfare and feelings of the doll is her innocence – yet she also shows maturity in looking forward to a future time.
Basho switches from the world of little girls to that of adult friends on this festive day drinking sweet wine in the tranquil April weather. Since the lunar month begins on the night of no moon, and Doll’s Festival is the 3rd day, the moon that night is a slender crescent that rises during the day, becomes visible in the twilight sky, then sets early in the night -- shaped like a ladle, perfect for drawing peach wine from a celestial bucket and serving to us. Concern for future time is a mental function of adults; infants are always in the now and as children learn the nature of time.
Since the previous stanza is about preserving a doll until a certain day, Basho suggests that this wine has been preserved till Doll’s Festival, so now we -- the poets gathered together to compose this sequence of renku -- can share it under the twilight moon. Still a youth himself, he travels a child-like fantasy path to that message of gratitude and friendship. To appreciate his stanza, we must keep in mind the context of group consciousness in Japanese society.
Basho leaps from concern for keeping a worn-out doll to a particular day to concern for preserving a limited supply of peach wine until that festive day. Leonard Shlain, in his book Sex, Time, and Power: How Women's Sexuality Changed the Course of Human Evolution: proposes that the human concept of continuing time originated in a prehistoric woman from two clues: the cycle of the moon together with the cycle of her menses. By synthesizing putting these two clues – one from the world, and one from her own body – she discovered how time flows from past to future, thus enabling all of human consciousness and technology.
Basho recognizes the clue in the moon: as we observe Luna, learning how she changes her shape and schedule from night to night, in stages that remain the same month after month forever, we learn the nature of Time; as Shlain puts it, we “see beyond the moon to the next month.”
À world where the ladle of moon serves us sweet wine would be a world of “magical thinking,” a world in which when we want something we magically call it forth – as a child gives her dolls thoughts and feelings, and even has one doll interact with another – manipulating the Force -- like Yoda lifting the space shuttle from the swamp -- so it cannot be surpassed. The attraction to magical thinking comes from the ancient Chinese philosopher Chuang Tsu.
Magical thinking is normal in children aged 2 to 7. Susan A. Miller, Ed D. says, “During this magical-thinking stage of development, cause and effect are not necessarily objectively determined, but slanted by the preschoolers' desires. . . The most amazing part of magical thinking for young children is their belief that they can make life be anything they want it to be.”To conceive modern insights into child developments in Basho’s linked verse is a way to make his poetry come alive for us today.
(1: 9; #15, 16) For Basho the “Path of Truth” is Buddhism, and the Path of Love is what 20 year olds
are drawn to. Mushou can be “without sexuality” or “without the temperament to attain enlightenment,” or “without the ability to reason”; I translate “futility” not because this is the same as mushou, but rather because it conveys a similar emptiness.
(1: 13; #s 24, 25) Natsukade is the negative of natsuku, to be attached and connected, so this cat is experiencing the loss of attachment. She expected to retire for the winter close to the hearth where the charcoal fire keeps her so warm and nice, but for some reason she is outside, freezing her paws off. Iji explains: the fire in the kotatsu went out, and inside became as cold as outside, so here she is, crying.
Still deep in the night
(1: 15; #s 31. 32) The moon at dawn is only a pale whiteness in the sky; it casts no shadow at all, so this human traveling in the first light of day has no friend. Basho has given the “shadow figure” an identity. At night the entire world is shadow, while no humans are on the road, so the shadow travels alone
New Year’s dawn
(1: 17; #38, 39) In a Shinto ritual, the ice of winter is preserved in an ice house until midsummer, and that spirit of perseverance offered to the kamisama. The Japanese constantly exhort each other, gambatte, “persevere, hold on, maintain your strength!” Issho switches from mid-summer heat to freezing cold New Year’s Day; just before the first bit of Sun appears, a glimmer on the horizon announces the coming event. Can we expand our minds to see Sun rising from horizon as one with ice melting.
The stanza-pair is a poetic representation of the yin-yang symbol. Yin is dark and cold; Yang light and hot. The bit of ice in the midsummer heat is the dark spot in the white field; the sun rising in midwinter is the bright spot in the dark field. The two fields with their opposing spots together form the cycle of the year, of reality, of consciousness.
(1: 18; #42, 43) A girl speaks of Sayo Hime, the goddess who spreads spring over the earth; she cares for her body and clothing as meticulously as the goddess forms petals on the flowers. Her hips and hair, as slender and flexible as willow branches covered with young green leaves swaying sensually in the wind; This is a most gorgeous female image – then Basho makes her wait for a lover who does not show. Notice the contrast between her willowy beauty and her unfulfilled desire so intense it fills the wind.
Foolishness has stopped,
(1: 21; #s 47, 48) A boy practices the classical Japanese alphabet with 48 sounds, starting with the middle of the sequence: “rah-moo-oo-ee-noh” is like “l-m-n-o-p” in our song. This is his "foolishness." But now the mischief maker sleeps. Sleep consolidates what we learn awake, so the programs are retained and available for later use. Both stanzas are about the learning process. The poets have given us a unique view into the elementary learning process in this era.
Hoku o matsuru / gishiki shashou ya
Deshisomuru / fune no yukuei / kizukaware
Namida de kurasu / fune no ryushuchu
(1: 23; #52-54) Ijo begins this trio with the divinity of the North Star, the one constant in the night sky, and a Shinto ritual which reachs out to that divinity. Basho continues with the boat which will navigate by the North Star, although even with that constant guide, may not survive the storms on the sea. Sengen continues with the family at home waiting with anxiety for husband on the boat to return. Notice how Basho’s image connects both with the stanza before and the stanza after.
So a vision emerges
(1: 24; #s 57, 58) “Hair parted in the middle” suggests a young girl; as she enters adolescence and starts to flirt, her hair becomes long and elegant. 21 year old Basho “sees” through her hair to a vision of the beauty hidden to sight. Other males of this age should be able to get the feeling he has for the hidden female. Thisis an 'attachment' of the sort the Buddha warns us against.
(1: 28; #s 74, 75) He has not visited her for a long while – but here he is now, and he obviously wants sex. Basho’s stanza is the excuse he gives her. Is he telling the truth or bullshitting? Does his job actually take up so much of his time? Or is he actually spending his spare time with another woman? If he is lying, how much else of his words are lies? Do I really want to sleep with such a liar? Which is best for me, to forgive him and go on with our relationship, or break up and go on without him? The eternal dynamic of men seeking a way into women, and women wondering about men’s fidelity.
Basho told his students:
This 'energy' is ki, the universal energy of Oriental martial and healing arts, or as George Lucus called it, "the Force."
(1: 31; #s 84, 85) Sengin offers an elegant image of Japanese classical dance, and Basho takes that into the world of children: The movement of the dancer’s hand expresses more, much more, than simply getting from up to down; it expresses the dancer’s obedience to ki, the Universal Energy of Oriental medicine and martial arts, the Force of Star Wars. Likewise the small child may not follow adult commands, but is obedient to that universal Energy.
(1: 34; #s 96, 97) Basho (1644-1694) counters with his take on what his contemporary Isaac Newton (1642-1727) called the Third Law of Motion – although Basho’s version is more human and personal. An eye for an eye. What goes around, comes around. You provoke me with words, I provoke you back. It gets very complicated because we are in a crowd with many different action/reactions occurring at once.
These early Basho tsukeku, like so many he will write in the next 29 years, focuses not on the feelings scholar Edwin Cranston calls the “traditional trinity of Japanese poetry: love, death, and divinity,” but rather aspects of reality the Japanese do not usually considered “poetic.Consider the themes in his eleven stanzas:
The moon, time, and intoxication
The paths of Truth and Love
Our attachment to warmth
Daybreak and solitude
Ice, the rising sun, yin and yang
Women and waiting for love
Women’s hair and what is hidden
Children, learning, and sleep
Male excuses and female trust
Children and Universal Energy Personal action and reaction
Young Basho already had a genius for ‘linking’ through human life and consciousness.