Poetry and Song 3
Here is a hokku by Basho:
fūryū no hajime ya oku no taueuta
roots of elegance
on this trip to the far north
Translated by Jane Reichhold, Basho: The Complete Haiku, page 136, Kodansha International, 2008
beginnings of poetry –
the rice planting songs
of the interior
Translated by Haruo Shirane, Traces of Dreams, page 125, Stanford University Press, 1988
the beginning of all art –
in the deep north
a rice-planting song
Translated by David Barnhill, Basho’s Haiku, page 91, State University of New York Press, 2004
This hokku is from Basho’s famous journal, “The Narrow Road to the Deep North” (Oku no Hosomichi). Basho had just passed the Shirakawa barrier and met up with some friends. Basho produced this hokku on the occasion of their meeting. Basho’s friends were all poets and this hokku was used as the opening verse of a Renga they composed on the spot; one of three they would compose together that evening.
It is unusual for an opening verse for a Renga because it expresses Basho’s view of where poetry, or art, comes from; the root that nourishes poetry. Normally an opening verse for a Renga expresses season and place; but expression of opinion, or displays of emotion, are rare and some would consider them inappropriate for an opening verse (they could appear in the middle section of a Renga). In a personal conversation I had with Jane Reichhold she agreed that this was unusual for an opening verse, a hokku, but her take on this is that all of the people with Basho in this situation were students of Basho, so Basho used the occasion to impart some basic insight into the nature of poetry and art.
In my imagination I think of Basho, with his trusty traveling companion Sora, hiking into the wilderness of the far north of Japan, crossing the Shirakawa barrier, and there in the field were women planting rice and singing a traditional rice-planting song. This, I think, is a kind of “aha” moment. The rice-planting song is poetry, but it is poetry that is spontaneous and natural song. It is not deliberately cultivated poetry. It simply emerges from the rhythmic activity, the planting of rice, and the culture. It is a natural part of being a human being.
One of the reasons I like Reichhold’s translation is that it emphasizes the idea that this kind of song is the root of poetry not just in the historical sense, but also in the sense of a root continuously nourishing a plant. Poetry is what we see above ground, but the natural expression of song is the root upon which poetry depends.
One of the points I think Basho was trying to make for his students is to not get too far away from this root, to remember that poetry is dependent upon song. The context is one of Renga, or linked verse, which as it developed in Japan became a highly complex, rule-bound poetic form. In such a situation it would be easy for a poet to forget the root. The root, the beginning, the origin of even the most complex and refined types of poetry remains in the simple, natural songs spontaneously given voice to by ordinary, uneducated, people. This is the voice of humanity.
Basho’s hokku is rich in meaning and each time I look at it I discover new reverberations. I think it was Basho’s ability to remain grounded in this nourishing source which kept his poetry alive, fresh, and natural. And I believe that it is still true today that song is the nourishing root which gives life to poetry.