The absence, in both Japan and the West, of significant knowledge of the humanity in Basho’s poetry and personality occurs because his renku, tanka, letters, and spoken word are almost unknown. One influential scholar, the poet and critic Masaoka Shiki (1867 – 1902), can be blamed for this - however the concept of "blame" over-simplifies the matter. Shiki's obsession with haiku and neglect of renku allowed the major part of Basho poetry, the most life-affirming poems in world literature, to become, in the words of Donald Keene, “no more than playthings of antiquarians.”
It may be too late to do anything, however here I try to undo the damage Shiki did to our cultural heritage by ignoring Basho’s works on humanity.
Keene in his biography of Shiki, The Winter Sun Shines in, tells us
“Shiki’s criticism, at times marked by intemperate condemnation of what he disliked, was the weapon with which he demolished the prevalent worship of the poetry of the past. He demanded the creation of a new poetry that embodied the poet’s experiences and perceptions and was not simply a restatement of well known ‘poetic’ themes” (p. 4).
Shiki claimed that Basho merely restated well know themes, however in his letters and spoken word Basho repeatedly demanded the creation of a new poetry that embodied the poet’s experiences and perceptions; he constantly, throughout his letters and spoken word, advocated for “Newness” and “Lightness” rather than the old heaviness of past poets. (See E-3 LIGHTNESS. Shiki sought for shasei, to “sketch from life,” which, for Shiki, meant objectively portraying only what was before his eyes -- while Basho sketched both from physical reality as well as from inner knowledge of the “essential nature” (hon-i) of things. Basho sought for inner truth as well as objective reality.
They are not actually married with a license. He is just taking her along with him. Shiki criticized this search for the hidden and spiritual as “religion” rather than “literature.” He thought, in the words of Haruo Shirane, haiku should “deal with momentary images rather than concerns or issues.” Shiki would not approve of my seeing in Basho poetry anthropology or sociology.
Shiki condemned renku because, as he saw it, a following verse could not be “sketched from nature”; each poet was obligated to draw his subject from the stanza before. The group had to cooperate, limiting each poet’s individual freedom of expression. Shiki did not get along well with people unless they followed him and accepted his ill-tempered tirades -- so cooperative poetry was not the form for him.
Oddly enough, an ideal expression of shasei may be the first stanza of this renku pair, both stanzas by Basho, written in succession.
Not every haiku must be exactly as seen – as many of Basho’s verses were not – however sketching from reality is one way he recommends. His following stanza then portrays not one child turning seven, but all children turning seven, the essential nature of human development at age seven. For Basho to see that children’s facial features transform at age seven, changing from a baby face to the “clear” features of a child, then to write a poem about this phenomenon, he must have watched the faces of many children, especially his three younger sisters. This is not something only Basho saw. Many students of child development note the onset of a new stage at age seven.
The two stanzas together say that conceiving a haiku, should occur naturally, organically, as one’s face develops. Shiki ignored all renku so he certainly knew not this stanza-pair, and if he had known it, he would not have approved, because he thought poetry should portray “momentary images” not insights or truths.
Basho’s haiku number about 1000; his renku stanzas 1700 – so out a total 2700 verses, 37% were haiku, and 63% renku. Basho said:
Basho recognized that his haiku were nothing special, but renku was where he met the kamisama. Shiki exhaustingly studied Basho’s haiku, but all he studied of Basho was his haiku, and he seems not to have noticed the ones about humanity. Shiki never knew that Basho wrote tanka, and so he misses out on the glories of the humanity in the few tanka Basho did write.
When “a questioner asks Shiki why he devoted no attention to Basho’s renku. Shiki’s reply was brief:
Shiki had no knowledge of, and refused to discuss, the main part of Basho’s poetry, the poems of Basho’s unique genius.
Shiki closed his mind to the verses Basho considered his best, judging him on the basis of only 37% of his poetry, judging with obstinacy and close-minded fervor. His judgments took hold of people’s minds, so the major part of Basho’s poetry is known only to a few obscure renku scholars.
The Western reader accustomed to a wide array of different sorts of literature may wonder how Shiki was able to dismiss renku from literature -- even though renku had been popular literature for several centuries until the Japanese accepted Shiki’s rejection. Keene says,
“When with the Meiji Restoration, the isolation of 250 years ended, foreigners and their literature freely entered Japan. In the excitement of the discovery of a rich and exciting world, traditional Japanese poetry was all but forgotten..
All three forms of traditional Japanese poetry –tanka, the haiku, and the renku – were dying out when Shiki came onto the scene at the birth of the Meiji Era. Through tremendous effort in his short life, Shiki saved the haiku and the tanka, while allowing the renku to die out.
Because Shiki refused to know renku, the world knows no renku, and is deprived of the humanity in a stanza-pair such as this:
Father died in war when I was small, and I have grown up under the weight of that grief. Now, finally reaching the prime of youthful vigor, I look back over those years of dreams awake and asleep constantly reverting to that one moment on a battlefield I have never seen in reality. Exploring the link between the two stanzas, we find Basho’s genius.
Basho’s well-known haiku are either nature scenes or verses of lonely male desolation. He did write some haiku focusing on humanity , but such verses are far more abundant in renku, but nobody knows anything about them because they are not haiku.
She emerges from the fertile mud to nourish her child from her breasts. This young peasant woman’s entire body is soiled and roughened by everyday exposure to dirt and mud full of night soil, with only hard mineral-laden water for washing. Still, she tries to keep her face clean and pretty, for baby to behold. As the tiny mouth sucks her nipple, she gazes into the eyes and forehead, searching to see the dreams within.
Has any other male poet produced so exquisitely feminine a poem? Feminine in concern for facial beauty and cleanliness, the femininity of women at work, women with breasts, women nourishing life, and women’s hopes for children’s future, all wrapped up in five short lines – and every word of this would be altogether unacceptable to t Shiki who said. "The haiku is literature. Renku is not literature and for this reason need not be discussed.” (Keene, 141)
Furthermore, Shiki rejected renku because it lack literary unity. A novel has “literary unity” when every incident fits in with the whole story. In renku themes and subjects, places and time, are constantly changing from one stanza to the next. Every scene appears for a moment then disappears, as in a montage. Stanzas A and B are connected, and B and C are connected; occasionally we see continuity from A to C, but always A and D are different in every way conceivable. Shiki is assuming that we consider an entire renku sequence from start to finish – and, I agree, the lack of “literary unity” makes this very difficult.
I, however, focus on stanza-pairs – and sometimes trios, or occasionally quartets and quintets, but usually pairs -- in which the following stanza fulfills the previous stanza. When we focus our attention on “getting” the link between the two stanzas. we have “literary unity” and Shiki’s criticism does not apply.
From the poor struggling woman in the first stanza, Basho adds her daughter at age seven – throughout world cultures, seen as the beginning of moral understanding and wisdom -- playing the Japanese harp. Can you see the link? The "literary unity"? Imagine the pride the poor mother feels hearing her daughter produce such beauty, the Hope for a better future rising on the lovely notes from her seven-year old fingers. Yet Shiki says this is not literature and need not be discussed.”
R.H. Blyth compares a Basho haiku on “play women” – i.e. brothel prostitutes -- with one by Shiki on a play quarters.
In his travel journal A Narrow Path in the Heartlands, Basho describes hearing two young women from a brothel in Niigata on a spiritual pilgrimage to the Ise Shrine. Before going to sleep, through the wall of his inn, he heard them tell the misery of being slave to a brothel. Basho’s haiku draws meaning from the humanity in the prose that precedes it.
In the sadness of autumn, tiny purple petals of bush clover form in countless multitudes on the bush, live out their brief lives, then scatter to the ground. The two women have walked many miles to get to this inn. The day-long exertion and anxiety comes to rest in the haiku. All are sleeping peacefully under the moon shining on the roof of the inn. Fast asleep—alive without consciousness – they seem to exist on a separate plane, closer to the divine. The moonlight shining on the roof makes the inn a sort of shrine, and the bush-clover decorates this holy place. Under that roof are two courageous women, asleep with the kamisama.
Keene says, “Basho has glorified both (women and bush clover) and lifted them out of this world into the world of poetry.” Such “glorification,” being subjective and “spiritual,” is unacceptable to Shiki.
This is what Shiki actually saw: cotton flowers near a small walled enclosure which contains just a few brothels to serve the filthy men who work on boats; Blyth asks, “This is a picture of life, but has it any life in it, any depth? -- the question we must ask of all haiku sketches. Shiki wanted nothing to do with “depth” or “symbolic truth.” Still, we wonder if he saw the connection between the balls of white cotton growing inside their buds and the women enclosed by the walls around this small pleasure quarters. Is that too subjective for Shiki?
Compare this with a renku stanza pair on cotton flowers; Basho wrote the second stanza:
Mother gives birth, to her son a second time, now to form his own life and family – or maybe Mama’s boy is escaping from her domineering influence as the whole area of white cotton balls escapes from their buds.
The link from mother and son to cotton budding is subjective, sociological, and psychological, so Shiki would have rejected it, but through subjectivity Basho portrays human life and living energy.
Here is another sketch by Shiki::
While Shiki was brushing his teeth, a draft has scattered a bit of his tooth powder. As Keene remarks, the verse “startles by the ordinariness of its subject” -- “tooth powder” marks this as a poem of the Meiji era. This “insistence on modernity” resembles much modern art which is no more than an exercise in pointlessness – the existential truth of pointlessness. We compare a Basho renku on the color red.
Cockscomb often grows in Japanese gardens, its flower in autumn shaped like’s a rooster’s headpiece. The red is so deep and vivid that every eye is drawn to the flowers. Placing them in the front of the garden makes them all the more in-your-face red. Basho takes that redness of a flower, and jumps to humanity. Red, the color of passion, suggests the turmoil in the heart of a daughter. He creates that emotional turmoil, then also a compassionate and understanding mother to calm down her daughter. This commentary from the Complete Anthology of Japanese Literature, is altogether suitable for a modern parenting magazine.
“The daughter broods over thoughts of love, upset to hysteria. We imagine her shaking all over, possibly because of a marriage proposal she dislikes. Her mother – or someone like a mother –manages to say the right words in the right tone to soothe and settle her down.”
Basho writes of humanity – and yet Keene tells us that Shiki wrote that
“Basho’s preference for writing poetry about nature rather than human beings had led him to display more interest in religion than in literature. His withdrawal from normal human concerns constituted cowardice."
What Shiki calls “religion” are actually insights into human nature and universal Truth which Shiki had no interest in. How strange! Shiki actually thought he wrote about humanity but Basho did not. So far in this article, we have passed through eleven Basho verses replete with humanity, with images of actual people, and two haiku by Shiki which are scenes related to humanity with no individual portraits. In Basho4Humanity are several hundred sketches of humanity, however most of these are in linked verse, so Shiki refused to learn anything about them. Shiki also refused to learn anything about women, or anything from women, and rarely portrayed them in his haiku. Basho, on the other hand learned all he could from women – maybe especially from his mother and four sisters – and portrayed them in more than 200 verses (in Basho4Now).
Shiki speaks of Basho’s “withdrawal from normal human concerns.” Only someone who knows nothing of Basho’s letters could say such a thing – yet we see this idea occurring in current scholars and translators who say Basho was
“impersonal, detached, and objective” –
“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.”
“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.”
Remember: the people who said the above know absolutely nothing of Basho renku,
nothing of his letters or spoken word.
In reality, Shiki was the one who withdrew from normal human concerns. His alcoholic father died when he was five, he grew up with his strict Confucian mother and one sister, started coughing blood when he was 18, took to his sickbed at 28, and died at 35. In his youth he had some experience of people, mostly men, but in final seven years of his life, tuberculosis of the spine kept him almost entirely on his bed, his mother and sister nursing him. Able to move only his arm and hand, he wrote lying supine with them holding the paper board above him. In those seven years of Shiki dying, they had to change his cloths and wash him day after day, while doing the rest of the housework, and holding the board above him, yet Shiki constantly criticized them in his diary (which he wrote on the board they held)..
He was hateful to men as well. According to one poet, he would stare at a visitor’s face and tell “stories that consisted for the most part of hateful personal attacks on other people, accounts of their blunders… far from sympathizing with such people, sensei seemed to derive the greatest pleasure from sneering at them.
Basho, on the other hand, grew up with his mother, father (until age 12), older brother, and four sisters, one older and three younger. In his poetry, essays, and letters he expresses warm feelings toward them and his close friends – Ensui, Doho, Kyorai, Sora, Sampu, Kyokusui, Uko, Chiegetsu. Basho's profound concern for family members, his many close friends, and his profound attention to women and children, reveal knowledge of humanity unavailable to Shiki deprived of most human contact. Basho is almost always positive.
Basho wrote 250 works praising women and girls (works that I know and count) but since the vast majority of these are renku, Shiki knew nothing about them and would have us know nothing.
Contrary to what Shiki says, Basho is the most humane, and the most feminine poet in all of world literature – which can only be realized if you explore his linked verse. Shiki was the one dehumanized by the circumstances of his life and his own rejection of human contact. Basho, throughout most of his 30 years of poetry, writes only positive and life-affirming messages. Women who sing in groups may appreciate this single stanza
A chorus of women allows one woman to lead them, so their sound, their collective prana, goes far. AMONG WOMEN, may serve as an anthem to female solidarity and empowerment.
Only a man as sick and bitter man as Shiki could have written this haiku
In contrast is this haiku written by Basho at the end of summer, 1693, when in a one-month long depression he closed his gate to all visitors and refused to go outside:
Both Basho’s and Shki’s haiku deal with death and decay in water, yet Shiki overwhelms us with disgust, while the smaller more manageable disgust in Basho’s verse is the product of a brief depression in his life. For most of his life, Basho preferred positive and life-affirming messages. His follower Shado wrote
Focus on garbage, and verse is heavy, even gross. Maggots! Yuck! Now, focus on sunlight and the affection of mother providing for her babies, and it is altogether Light and life-affirming.
So Basho is saying that interpretation of a haiku can be subjective;a single haiku can be depressing or inspirational, depending on how we see it. Basho favored the inspirational
but Shiki never noticed this because he was so wrapped up in his own sickness. Keene quotes one of Shiki’s followers: “Masaoka’s obstinacy was enough to make one angry.” Yet the obstinate and dogmatic judgments of this mentally and physically sick man took hold through the Japanese literary world. Keene says,
“The influence of Shiki’s haiku and haiku criticism was immense and long lasting.”
Because Shiki said renga “need not be discussed” and his opinion spread throughout the land, renka (in the words of Keene) “ceased to be a living poetic form and became no more than playthings of antiquarians.” (200). “A few scholars and poets today attempt to continue the renga tradition, more as a game than as poetry.” (225). Very few people, in Japan or the West, known of more than a few Basho renku, and so the earliest and most numerous, diverse, and insightful word-portraits of women and children in world literature lie unknown in obscure Japanese anthologies.
How long will we allow Shiki’s obstinate and bad-tempered judgments to deprive our culture of the vast storehouse of positive life-affirming Basho poetry, these magnificent resources for human self-understanding?