Matsuo Basho

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  1. Roy Fokker Forum Veteran

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    One day in the spring of 1681 a banana tree was being planted alongside a modest hut in a rustic area of Edo, a city now known as Tokyo. It was a gift from a local resident to his teacher of poetry, who had moved into the hut several months earlier. The teacher, a man of thirty-six years of age, was delighted with the gift. He loved the banana plant because it was somewhat like him in the way it stood there. Its large leaves were soft and sensitive and were easily torn when gusty winds blew from the sea. Its flowers were small and unobtrusive; they looked lonesome, as if they knew they could bear no fruit in the cool climate of Japan. Its stalks were long and fresh- looking.

    The teacher lived all alone in the hut. On nights when he had no visitor, he would sit quietly and listen to the wind blowing through the banana leaves. The lonely atmosphere would deepen on rainy nights. Rainwater leaking through the roof dripped intermittently into a basin. To the ears of the poet sitting in the dimly lighted room, the sound made a strange harmony with the rustling of the banana leaves outside.




    Basho nowaki ****e A banana plant in the autumn gale -

    Tarai ni ame o I listen to the dripping of rain

    Kiku yo kana Into a basin at night.



    The haiku seems to suggest the poet's awareness of his spiritual affinity with the banana plant.



    Some people who visited this teacher of poetry may have noticed the affinity. Others may have seen the banana plant as nothing more than a convenient landmark. At any rate, they came to call the residence the Basho ("banana plant) Hut, and the name was soon applied to its resident, too: the teacher came to be known as the Master of the Basho Hut, or Master Basho. It goes without saying that he was happy to accept the nickname. He used it for the rest of his life.





    I. First Metamorphosis: From Wanderer to Poet



    Little material is available to recreate Basho's life prior to his settlement in the Basho Hut. It is believed that he was born in 1644 at or near Ueno in Iga Province, about thirty miles southeast of Kyoto and two hundred miles west of Edo. He was called Kinsaku and several other names as a child; he had an elder brother and four sisters. His father, Matsuo Yozaemon, was probably a low-ranking samurai who farmed in peacetime. Little is known about his mother except that her parents were not natives of Ueno. The social status of the family, while respectable, was not of the kind that promised a bright future for young Basho if he were to follow an ordinary course of life.



    Yet Basho's career began in an ordinary enough way. It is presumed that as a youngster he entered the service of a youthful master, Todo Yoshitada, a relative of the feudal lord ruling the province. Young Basho first served as a page or in some such capacity.1 His master, two years his senior, was apparently fond of Basho, and the two seem to have become fairly good companions as they grew older. Their strongest bond was the haikai, one of the favorite pastimes of sophisticated men of the day. Apparently Yoshitada had a liking for verse writing and even acquired a haikai name, Sengin. Whether or not the initial stimulation came from his master, Basho also developed a taste for writing haikai, using the pseudonym Sobo. The earliest poem by Basho preserved today was written in 1662. In 1664, two haiku by Basho and one by Yoshitada appeared in a verse anthology published in Kyoto. The following year Basho, Yoshitada, and three others joined together and composed a renku of one hundred verses. Basho contributed eighteen verses, his first remaining verses of this type.



    Basho's life seems to have been peaceful so far, and he might for the rest of his life have been a satisfied, low-ranking samurai who spent his spare time verse writing. He had already come of age and had assumed a samurai's name, Matsuo Munefusa. But in the summer of 1666 a series of incidents completely changed the course of his life. Yoshitada suddenly died a premature death. His younger brother succeeded him as the head of the clan and also as the husband of his widow. It is believed that Basho left his native home and embarked on a wandering life shortly afterward.



    Some surmises about Basho's decision to leave home have to do with his love affairs. Several early biographies claim that he had an affair with his elder brother's wife, with one of Yoshitada's waiting ladies, or with Yoshitada's wife herself. These are most likely the fabrications of biographers who felt the need for some sensational incident in the famous poet's youth. But there is one theory that may contain some truth. It maintains that Basho had a secret mistress, who later became a nun called Jutei. She may even have had a child, or several children, by Basho. At any rate, these accounts seem to point toward one fact: Basho still in his early twenties, experienced his share of the joys and griefs that most young men go through at one time or another.



    Basho's life for the next few years is very obscure. It has traditionally been held that he went to Kyoto, then the capital of Japan, where he studied philosophy, poetry and calligraphy under well-known experts. It is not likely, however, that he was in Kyoto all during this time; he must often have returned to his hometown for lengthy visits. It might even be that he still lived in Ueno or in that vicinity and made occasional trips to Kyoto. In all likelihood he was not yet determined to become a poet at this time. Later in his own writing he was to recall "At one time I coveted an official post with a tenure of land." He was still young and ambitious, confident of his potential. He must have wished, above all, to get a good education that would secure him some kind of respectable position later on. Perhaps he wanted to see the wide world outside his native town and to mix with a wide variety of people. With the curiosity of youth he may have tried to do all sorts of things fashionable among the young libertines of the day. Afterward, he even wrote, "There was a time when I was fascinated with the ways of homosexual love."



    One indisputable fact is that Basho had not lost his interest in verse writing. A haikai anthology published in 1667 contained as many as thirty- one of his verses, and his work was included in three other anthologies compiled between 1669 and 1671. His name was gradually becoming known to a limited number of poets in the capital. That must have earned him considerable respect from the poets in his hometown too. Thus when Basho made his first attempt to compile a book of haikai, about thirty poets were willing to contribute verses to it. The book, called The Seashell Game (Kai Oi), was dedicated to a shrine in Ueno early in 1672.



    The Seashell Game represents a haiku contest in thirty rounds. Pairs of haiku, each one composed by a different poet, are matched and judged by Basho. Although he himself contributed two haiku to the contest, the main value of the book lies in his critical comments and the way he refereed the matches. On the whole, the book reveals hi to be a man of brilliant wit and colorful imagination, who had a good knowledge of popular songs, fashionable expressions, and the new ways of the world in general. It appears he compiled the book in a lighthearted mood, but his poetic talent was evident.



    Then, probably in the spring of 1672, Basho set out on a journey to Edo, apparently with no intention of returning in the immediate future. On parting he sent a haiku to one of his friends in Ueno:



    Kumo to hedatsu Clouds will separate

    Tomo ka ya kari no The two friends, after migrating

    Ikiwakare Wild goose's departure.



    Basho's life for the next eight years is somewhat obscure again. It is said that in his early days in Edo he stayed at the home of one or another of his patrons. That is perhaps true, but it is doubtful that he could remain a dependent for long. Various theories, none of them with convincing evidence, argue that he became a physician's assistant, a town clerk, or a poet's scribe. The theory generally considered to be the closest to the truth is that for some time he was employed by the local waterworks department. Whatever the truth, his early years in Edo were not easy. He was probably recalling those days when he later wrote: "At one time I was weary of verse writing and wanted to give it up, and at another time I was determined to be a poet until I could establish a proud name over others. the alternatives battled in my mind and made my life restless."



    Though he may have been in a dilemma Basho continued to write verses in the new city. In the summer of 1675 he was one of several writers who joined a distinguished poet of the time in composing a renku of one hundred verses; Basho, now using the pseudonym Tosei, contributed eight. The following spring he and another poet wrote two renku, each consisting of one hundred verses.. After a brief visit to his native town later in the year, he began devoting more and more time to verse writing. He must have made up his mind to become a professional poet around this time, if he had not done so earlier. His work began appearing in various anthologies more and more frequently, indicating his increasing renown. When the New Year came he apparently distributed a small book of verses among his acquaintances, a practice permitted only to a recognized haikai master. In the winter of that year he judged two haiku contests, and when they were published as Haiku Contests in Eighteen Rounds (Juhachiban Hokku Awase), he wrote a commentary on each match. In the summer of 1680 The Best Poems of Tosei's Twenty Disciples (Tosei Montei Dokugin Nijikkasen) appeared, which suggests that Basho already had a sizeable group of talented students. Later in the same year two of his leading disciples matched their own verses in two contests, "The rustic haiku Contest" ("Inaka no Kuawase") and "The Evergreen haiku Contest" ("Tokiwaya no Kuawase"), and Basho served as the judge. that winter his students built a small house in a quiet, rustic part of Edo and presented it to their teacher. Several months later a banana tree was planted in the yard, giving the hut its famous name. Basho, firmly established as a poet, now had his own home for the first time in his life...

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    HAiKU - Matsuo Basho

    scent of plum blossoms
    on the misty mountain path
    a big rising sun

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