Simply Haiku: An E-Journal of Haiku and Related Forms
September-October 2004, vol. 2, no. 5

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FEATURE: Stephen W. Kohl, Matsuo Bashô: Thoughts on the Art of Haiku.

Matsuo Bashô (1644-1694) is generally regarded as the father of haiku poetry, the man who took a popular and often irreverent verse form similar to today’s limerick, and raised it to the level of serious art. Given the significance of Bashô’s achievement, it makes sense to go back to him as the source, to learn his views on the art of haiku. To do this, however, is difficult for Bashô was a protean man, both in his personal life and in his development as a poet. The project is complicated by the fact that Bashô never set down in a systematic way a group of rules or definitions of good poetry. Nevertheless, a look at Bashô’s life and legacy reveals some interesting ideas about the nature of haiku and some guides to the creation of poetry.

That Bashô was a protean figure is beyond question. He came from humble origins and rose to a position of relative prominence in the household service of a rural samurai family. He abandoned that career and sought his fortune in Edo where he apparently married, had a family and established himself as a teacher of poetry. Then he abandoned family and career to become an urban hermit in order to devote himself to his own poetic odyssey. He studied Zen Buddhism, shaved his head and wore priest’s robes, but never became a Buddhist priest. Finally he abandoned his urban hermitage and spent most of the last decade of his life on the road. This biography suggests a process of progressively freeing himself from the bonds of worldly concerns and attachments until there remained nothing in his life but the pursuit of poetic ideals.

On the other hand, Bashô kept in touch with his samurai roots, the son of his patron becoming one of Bashô’s disciples, and in his poetry we can find a streak of nationalism and a veneration for the benevolent rule of the house of Tokugawa suggesting that Bashô was always aware of his samurai roots. When he left his hermitage in Edo for the last time, he turned it over to his wife and two daughters, and it was in Bashô’s hermitage that his wife spent her final days. Bashô’s son accompanied him on his final journey and was with him when he died, so to the end Bashô never really freed himself from the ties of family attachment. Although he chose to wear priestly garb, Bashô complained and protested when he visited the Grand Shrine at Ise, the most sacred of Shinto sites, because he was forbidden to enter the sacred precincts on the grounds that he was a Buddhist priest. Bashô insisted that he was not really a priest, only dressed like one. Indeed, in the journal he kept as a record of his visit to the Kashima Shrine he says he felt like a bat which is neither a mouse nor a bird, just as he was neither a priest nor a layman. The traditional image of Bashô, one he fostered and encouraged, is that of the solitary traveler, and yet it is clear from his writings and other sources that Bashô never traveled alone, always with one or more companions, always in the company of others.

While Bashô achieved considerable fame in his own lifetime, he was certainly not the only, nor even the most prominent, haikai master of his age. At a time when haiku was flourishing in the urban centers of Edo, Kyoto, and Osaka, Bashô’s disciples were largely drawn from the more liminal areas of Owari, Mino, and Omi, the in between places.

What is clear is that Bashô had very many disciples, unusually talented men who carried on his legacy and spread it to all parts of the country. One reason for the large number of followers was that Bashô traveled widely evangelizing for the Bashô school of haiku. Yet another part of the reason is that Bashô himself was constantly expanding the horizons of his poetic quest, always looking for something new. He began with an apprenticeship in the Teimon and Danrin schools of haikai which respectively focused on classical allusions and witty word play. He moved on through a Chinese style, a renga or linked verse style, and on to what Haruo Shirane defines as a Genroku landscape style. In the final years of his career Bashô advocated karumi or lightness as the central governing principle for haiku poetry. As Bashô progressed from style to style he found at each stage that some disciples could not keep up with the pace of his changes. They were content to remain in the Teimon style or the Danrin style or whatever, and Bashô gathered new disciples as he passed through each stage of his poetic development.

The consequence of this is predictable. When Bashô died he left behind a large number of disciples, and because he left little in the way of written work outlining his views on poetry, many of these disciples wrote down and interpreted the words of the master as they understood them. And because these disciples had been with Bashô at various stages of his career, the principles of poetry they attributed to the master are often divergent and contradictory. Add to this the fact that a century after his death we have the first revival led by Yosa Buson (1716-1784) and, around the turn of the 20th century, a second revival led by Masaoka Shiki (1867-1902). Each of these revivals involved a reinterpretation of Bashô’s poetry. Consequently there is no one, single dogmatic creed that we can point to and say “This is Bashô’s idea of poetry.” Nevertheless, in his diaries and other writings Bashô made statements concerning his purposes and goals as a poet, and two of his most important disciples left influential works purporting to transmit the master’s teachings. These are Kyorai’s Kyoraishô (1704) and Dohô’s Sanzôshi (1702). From these sources we can identify some of Bashô’s ever fluid notions of haiku poetry.

One of the terms Bashô used is Fûga no makoto, the truth of art. Fûga refers to the traditional forms of high art as opposed to the common or vulgar forms of contemporary art. By classifying haikai as fûga Bashô is asserting his intention to elevate it from the level of the vulgar and put it on an equal footing with the traditional forms of literary art. He will do this by cleaving to the principle of makoto, honesty, truth, sincerity. Recognizing that all great art gives expression to profound truths, Bashô insisted that haiku, too, even though it had been regarded as a trivial form of verse, could be a vehicle for profound expression and thereby can rank with the other forms of high art. Bashô had the insight to see the potential within haiku to become a serious verse form and he dedicated himself to transforming it in that way. At the same time, he also recognized the playful, witty quality of haiku and maintained that in achieving the goal of being taken seriously it need not limit itself to some false gravitas, it should not lose its sense of humor. Haiku can and should be warmly human and yet profound.

Another concept underlying Bashô’s work is the creative force he terms zôka. This is a universal spirit which vitalizes all things – not the pantheistic notion that each thing has its own divine spirit, but a panentheistic idea that a common vital spirit is present in all things. When we understand and perceive this zôka we make no distinction between self and other, we experience and share the true essence of all things. This is what Bashô had in mind when he famously said, “To learn from the pine, go to the pine; to learn from the bamboo, go to the bamboo.” He does not mean to observe the pine, but to become one with it by sharing its zôka, its underlying, creative essence. Words, like everything else, possess this creative and vitalizing force of zôka. Bashô is saying that instead of the poet using words to describe the pine, poet, words, and pine should all become one. When the poet’s spirit is at one with the spirit of the pine and with the spirit of the words, then he can express insight in a way that embodies the truth of the poet, of the word, and of the pine. Without this depth of insight the poem becomes, at best, no more than a clever manipulation of words.

One characteristic of Bashô’s finest poetry is the tension created by an interaction between the eternal and the momentary. The momentary sound of the frog hitting the water and disrupting the eternal silence of the old pond heightens our consciousness of this present moment by setting it in the context of eternity. The ever changing present is set against the long span of unchanging eternity. This is a way to define and appreciate each present moment. This yin and yang juxtapositioning of opposites is not merely a technique Bashô uses in his poetry, but a fundamental principle of his philosophy, a philosophy that recognizes the paradox that the only constant in life is change. This helps to explain Bashô’s ever changing stages of poetic development. He was never content to stagnate, seeking always for change and renewal. He felt this was necessary in order to refresh his own creative force (zôka). This led him to break with the artists of the past in many ways while he yet remains one with them in his pursuit of art (fûga). Bashô summed up this philosophy in his paraphrase of the great priest Kûkai saying, “I do not seek to imitate the ancient, I seek what they sought.” The goal is unchanging, but the path to it is ever changing.

Bashô appears to have articulated this notion of change and stability most clearly during his trip to the north when he visited many sites that had inspired the ancients to poetry. Often these places had deteriorated or altered or disappeared entirely, but the poetic inspiration remained. At the same time, other places which had been overlooked by earlier poets inspired Bashô. His message here is two-fold. Bashô drew deeply on the past, sought to understand and appreciate his predecessors, but he was determined not merely to imitate them, but to break fresh ground. Bashô had no use for complacency. On the other hand, in his ceaseless quest for something new and renewing Bashô would not be a slave to fashion, was not interested in keeping up with whatever was “hot” today. By grounding his quest for renewal in the traditions of the past he kept his focus on the truth of poetry (fûga no makoto).

This tension resulting from the juxtaposition of opposites is everywhere present in Bashô’s world. He stayed in the present moment by perceiving it against the backdrop of eternity, he forged ahead breaking new ground, but always kept an eye on the past, never forgetting that he sought what the ancients sought, that he sought through haiku what others had sought in waka or linked verse or tea ceremony.

At the end of his life Bashô developed the idea of karumi or lightness as a poetic principle. This lightness is an aesthetic that embodies the spare simplicity often considered as a hallmark of Japanese culture, particularly as it has been influenced by Zen. For Bashô this concept is best expressed in his late collection The Monkey’s Straw Raincoat, and stands in contrast to the more opulent haiku of Buson or the clever verse of Saikaku. The search for lightness in place of the ponderousness of ancient poetry or the self-conscious allusions to Chinese verse, included an avoidance of witty and elaborate wordplay; instead it sought an insight into that which is ordinary and everyday, and to express that insight in a way that appears effortless, spontaneous, and uncontrived.

In his unending search for newness and freshness in poetry Bashô discovered rustic beauty. While he generally avoided anything that smacked of vulgarity, he did find beauty in that which is mundane but not trivial. This was not necessarily an original notion with Bashô, it is an aesthetic that is consistent with the traditions of tea ceremony and with ideas that would be expressed again in the 20th century by Yanagi Soetsu, the father of the contemporary folk art movement in Japan. Yet the simplicity Bashô advocates is not simplistic. His poems in this vein avoid being didactic, rather they resonate with overtones that allow the reader to engage both the poet and the poem in an interpretive act. This is not the poet handing down to the reader his perfected masterpiece as from some Olympian height, rather the poem is an invitation for the poet and the reader to participate together as in a conversation.

Because Bashô’s poetry evolved through stages and culminated in the notion of karumi, or lightness, at the end of his life, some have regarded this concept as the end goal of haiku, but surely if Bashô had lived another ten years he would have pushed on to something else. As we look over the shifts and changes that occurred in Bashô’s life, and study the development of his poetry, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that Bashô’s legacy is an invitation to push forward, indeed, an insistence that we do so, if we intend to be true to the ideals of poetry. Clearly, haiku is more than merely composing verse in seventeen syllables with seasonal words and cutting words and images from nature, haiku seeks the profound truths expressed by all great art.


Stephen W. Kohl is Associate Professor, East Asian Languages and Literatures, University of Oregon. He specializes in Japanese language and literature and has published extensively on Japanese literature. Some of his recent works include The Saint of Mt. Koya and the Song of the Troubadour, a translation of two texts by Izumi Kyoka (Takakuwa Bujutsu Insatsu, Ltd., 1990); "Abe Jiro and 'The Diary of Santaro'" in Culture and Identity: Japanese Intellectuals during the Interwar Years, J. Thomas Rimer, ed., (Princeton University Press, 1990); and Wind Stone, a translation of a text by Masaaki Tachihara.