"I know I'm stronger in the songs than I really am. Sometimes I need to hear it myself. We all need to hear those empowering songs to remind us." Beyonce. Basho reminds us of this in 15 verses.
O-hari shite / aki mo inochi no / o o tsunagi
koto hiki musume yattsu ni narikeru
This woman has enough work sewing before winter comes. She may “make ends meet” in autumn, but has
to survive the rest of the year. Into this poor struggling home, Basho introduces a daughter and a koto,
or 13-string harp, an instrument of refinement ordinarily played by women. Notice the link between the form of needlework and the strings and frets on the harp. Both stanzas convey the diligence and constant effort of the female, the action of her hands producing order, rhythm, and beauty.
The daughter plays her mother’s koto here and now - and also plays it through the months, years, decades
of practice required to master the instrument. (The Japanese says yattsu which means "eight" however the
Japanese counted birth as age one, so I subtract one year from all ages given.) Basho praises the young girl in the early stages of her discipline. Many students of child development note the onset of a new stage at age seven.
Author Leonard Shlain, in Sex. Time, and Power, says,
The Catholic Church considers seven to be the age of moral understanding and uses it at the milestone for when a child can receive first communion. Confucian followers believe seven is the age of the beginning of wisdom. Many other cultures have used this age at a dividing line between innocence and the beginnings of a mature mind.
According to the site Education.com,
“From age seven toten, “the frontal and temporal lobes of the brain which control cognitive functions, grow enormously – more than at any other time in a person’s life. And at the same time, these lobes are making neural connections with the system that controls emotions. In other words, both thinking and feeling get a major overhaul starting at age seven.”
Since the frontal lobes initiate purposeful action, from age seven a child’s face takes on a clarity of purpose
absent in small children.
For Basho, in the 17th century, to specify age seven is astonishing; the sociological data brings profound depths to Basho’s stanza. We imagine the pride the hard-working mother feels hearing her daughter
produce such beauty. With utmost subtlety and grace, through the powerful effect music has on the brain,
Basho portrays the bond between mother and daughter, the hope for a better future that the growing and learning girl evokes in her mother, hope rising on the lovely notes emerging from her seven-year-old fingers on the harp.
Geni doyō nari / ama no hane-goromo
Utsusemi mo / yoshino no yama ni/ koto hikite
In the Noh play The Feather Maiden a celestial maiden removes her feather robe and, while she bathes in a clear stream, hangs it on a tree. The first poet switches to the clothing ordinary people hang out on a line to air in the heat. Basho continues with imagery of both hot season and women, and adds sound and music.
The juvenile cicada sheds its skin – or “exoskelton” or “shell” – in summer to emerge as an adult; the utsusemi, or abandoned skin, remains, on the bark of the tree. Utsusemi, in the Tale of Genji, is a woman who resisted Genji’s romantic advances; one night he tried to force himself on her, but she escaped, leaving her outer robe behind in his grasp, giving her the name she is known by. The Yoshino Mountains are far enough from Kyoto that she can play her koto in peace without Genji bothering her. The mountain trees are full of countless adult male cicadas making their “cries” by rapidly vibrating abdominal membranes; the sound goes on and on all day long in the heat of summer, driving some people crazy, while Basho compares them to the streaming, expanding notes of a koto.
Consider the following haiku a riddle – a riddle that encourages us to appreciate the power in musical notes
to move us: to ride the sound to an effect.
散る花や / 鳥も驚く / 琴の塵
Chiru hana ya / tori mo odoroku / koto no chiri
A proverb says “beautiful music can moveb dust.” The tones from the koto rise to the roof and startle 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.
(8: 305) After years of disappointment by fickle men, she is just an old mallet (a symbol for women who do
repetitive work) with white hair. The case for a standard koto is about the size and shape for a woman. This case used to contain the beauty and harmony of music; now it contains nothing but memories of regret.
The Tale of Genji, written by a woman early in 11th century, is not only the world’s first novel, but the most
extensive study of female psychology in ancient literature; it really should be called The Tale of Genji’s
Women. The main female character, Murasaki, is introduced at age nine, and even so young, she has
a character full of diversity worthy of attention. The following translations are by Edward Seidensticker:
A unique moment in world literature, this praise for the sensory-motor-musical intelligence of a young girl
not even ten: she plays with dolls but also can listen to a difficult melody one time on one musical instrument and reproduce it on a completely different instrument. Little Miss Mozart.
Each theme in the passages from the Genji appears in the following trio: the young girl’s beauty and charm,
long hair and difficulty combing it, age and maturity, her doll play along with her skill on a stringed instrument.
Mizu yurusarenu / kuro kami zo uki
Mada hina o / itawaru toshi no / utsukushiku
Kakaeshi koto no / hiza ya omotaki
Sick for many days, forbidden to wet her hair because this might bring on more sickness: so it has grown
tangled and messy and passing a comb through it is painful: young girls today may appreciate her hair’s
“distress.” In spite of what Murasaki’s nurse says, the girl continues to lavish her affection on dolls – developing her consciousness and skills for caring for babies. From Sukan’s ideal of loveliness, Basho jumps into body sensation; she hugs it on her lap as she would a doll or a baby. His words – heavy in weight… hold in hands…lap –all so physical and intimate, recall the physicalness of Young Murasaki “leaning forward to press a string with her left hand.”
The Japanese for the previous trio does not distinguish present and past tenses. The next poet changed Basho’s child holding a harp to an old woman who held a harp when she was a court lady decades ago.
Kakaeshi koto no / hiza ya omotaki
Utatane no / yume sae utoki / gosho no naka
She drifts away in a snooze, yet her dreams contain no memories of her years of service to the Empress –all that remains in her addled mind is the body-memory of the harp resting on her lap as she sat on her heels. So the poets play with and transform music, sensations through time.
Ochi soite / wakau ni mono ya / ii neramu
Omoi nokoseru / tō no kunigae
Biwa hiite / konya ni naite / akasu beki
The first two poets speak of a woman, of the love between the couple, the sadness of him being
transferred to a distant place, then Basho adds the melancholy notes of the lute together with her
distraught sobbing, from evening till sunrise.
Kakusu tayori o / tachinagara kiku
Andon no / shita yori shiroki / hitai tsuki
Tatami ni biwa o / dotsukari to oku
As she lifts up her lantern to better see the man who hides his thoughts, her face turns white with the
realization of his dishonesty. She plays a sad piece on her lute, then puts down the instrument on the tatami mat. Ordinarily she would do this with no sound, however in her frustration she momentarily loses her gracefulness. From ethereal face above lantern, Basho creates a solid, distinct sound: thud, containing her disappointment.
The following stanza appears in Topic 1: Power of Women with its previous stanza; here it is alone, to focus on the musical meaning:
Yurusarete / onna no naka no / ondō tori
(7: 257) Femalist interpretation: From the weakness of the lone woman, Basho switches to a chorus of women allowing one woman to lead them, so their sound goes far. May Basho’s stanza – with or without the previous stanza – become an anthem for women’s choral groups as well as social and political groups led by women.
Patriarchal interpretation: the one “among women allowed to lead them” is a man (and yes, many female
choral groups are led by men). Instead of deriving their power from solidarity with other women, these women derive power from their male leader. Male scholars assume Basho followed his society’s
patriarchy, but I believe he separated from those assumptions to pioneer his own path of focusing on
women as central and iconic.
Japanese tradition has teenage girls and young unmarried women transplanted rice-seedlings to the paddy mud, their fertility believed to magically transfer to the paddy. As they worked together, the women sang songs to the divine spirits:
Fuuryuu no / hajime ya oku no / taue uta
In these songs Basho hears - he rides the sounds -- to the origins of “refinement” -- which means “poetry” as well as all of culture that refines us to a higher state. Here is a rice planting song from Iwate-ken in the Deep North.
Rice produces more harvest per seed than other grains. The rice tax was rent paid to the daimyo who owns this province, 40 - 60% of the rice taken each year right after harvest. During harvest, the “Master” skims off some wealth to use for his private pleasure. The woman works hour after hour in the hot, bug-infested fields so the man can enjoy being with a woman who never works in the hot, bug-infested fields. This is patriarchy.
Imo are ‘tubers’, the thickened starchy underground section of the plant. Because tubers (a) provide much
nutrition from ground too poor for other crops, (b) underground are protected from storms, and (c) can be
stored for months without spoiling, tubers keep people alive during famine. Sato-imo, or taro, were the
“village-tuber” – the stable food of peasants – in Japan as well as in much of the South Pacific (in Hawaii, kalo, the ingredient for poi). The song Imo Arau, “Washing Taro,” found in a 1578 songbook, is far older than Basho:
The speaker is a woman washing taro. She begins with a simple counting rhythm, similar to “one-potato,
two-potato…” but also meaning “Does he have a mistress in the Capital and which one of us will he
prefer?” Taro are traditionally harvested on the day of the harvest moon, the 15th of the 8th Moon. ‘Round’
refers to the shape of taro, of the full moon,and of certain parts of a woman’s body (“Tiny taro are preferred”). Basho wrote:
Imo arau onna / Saigyou naraba / uta yoman
In the river village women wash the dirt from the tuber taro. We see and feel their slender hands holding the
variously shaped taro in the flowing stream. Either they sing the song Washing Taro to the famous 12th
century poet Saigyo, or he sings to them, of the reality of marriage in Japan: she works hard every day, feeding herself and the children on staple foods like taro while he goes wherever husbands go, eating fancy foods in restaurants and enjoying pleasures he cannot find at home.
Renge o orite / bijo ni kanzasu
Ayadori no / hisui mushiro ni / ochiru ka to
(BRZ 3: 51) The kingfisher is known for its bright sky-blue plumage. The BRZ calls this tsukeku “an
expression of the elegance of classical Chinese poetry.”
Geisha o tomuru / meigetsu no seki
Omoshirosa no / yuujo no aki no / yo sugaraya
The geisha, a classical dancer, performs her art at a harvest moon festival at a provincial barrier gate. Even as the autumn nights grow long, but no matter how long this autumn night is, this geisha fills it the glory of her performance. I suppose few of us find this a superior tsukeku, however it does illustrate Basho's femalism and praise for the woman.
Ito mo shizuka na / mai no te kudari
Mikake yori / ki wa otonashiki / ko chigo nite
(1: 31) Sengin offers an elegant image of Japanese classical dance performed by a woman, an image we can
see this in the dance of any people on Earth, as well as in the slow meditative movements of tai chi.
The movement of the hand expresses more, much more, than simply getting from up to down; it expresses the dancer’s obedience to ki, the universal energy or life force of Oriental medicine and martial arts. Likewise the small child may not follow adult commands, but does follow that universal Energy. Basho sees the child’s
obedience to ki as a reflection of the dancer’s awareness of Universal Energy in body movement. The child too, in his or her way, dances to the Energy.
Tsuki miken / Takao ga temuke / ureshikute
Aware to bun o / odoru yomosugara
(2: 209) Takao was a courtesan of the deepest Japanese refinement. She sends her devotion to the moon which is both transitory (because it disappears) and eternal (because it always returns). Basho begins his stanza with aware, the sensitivity to the inherent pathos of all things being transient; she seems to have received a letter from a man telling her he is not coming tonight, so she will be alone to dance all night long. Thus the pathos is together with happiness. Dancing brings her body sensation, like making love to herself. In Basho the focus is on activity, on body-consciousness, on female sensibility.
Possibly Basho's finest verse on a woman dancing is
however I have put that verse in Topic 1 - THE POWER OF WOMEN.