Reading Bashō, remapping genre

Following the example of the ancient priest who is said to have travelled thousands of miles caring naught for his provisions and attaining the state of sheer ecstasy under the pure beams of the moon, I left my broken house on the River Sumida in the August of the first year of Jyōkyō among the wails of the autumn wind.

Determined to fall
A weather-exposed skeleton
I cannot help the sore wind
Blowing through my heart.

After ten autumns
In Edo, my mind
Points back to it
As my native place.

From The Records of a Weather-Exposed Skeleton, by Matsuo Bashō, 1684

The lock is sticky. I fumble with the key. I turn back, set my tea down on the desk behind, then use my free hand to pull back the door a millimeter, enough to ease the lock. I open the door, search for the light, and the smell of books pulls me in. Hidden away here, through one of those doors that the students are curious about, and about which I encourage their curiosity–a secret room, lair of the knitting supplies, but mostly of the books, I have stolen in here this afternoon to raid the stacks.

One of the joys of teaching in a school like this one, the only American in the department, has been the great expansion of my reading list. Gatsby is here, and so is Streetcar, those mainstays of the American curriculum, but the shelves are crammed with authors I had never heard of in the States, canon texts of different countries, or the amalgamated favorites of twenty-five years of literature teachers. I pluck a book here and there. They become my bedtime reads, slowly working my way through new alleyways of literature, traveling time and place, building out some bits of understanding.

Material for this blog has blossomed from these back-shelves. Death and the Maiden inspired thoughts about political commentary in writing. There was Lucy, to which we turned for dialogue. Murakami’s The Elephant Vanishes I read, then taught, and wrote about here exploring conflict and Kishōtenketsu stories.

Today, it is Japan to which we journey once again, through the eyes of a much older writer, Matsuo Bashō, to explore another corner of this literary world, to reexamine our assumptions about genre, and hopefully to find a little peace there on our way.

A quick walk out to the fjord last night. There was a performance on campus, for the International Day of Peace. I performed Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind,” sing-along style with the students. Then I walked out to the dock. Stars were just starting to appear, although my phone camera wasn’t able to capture them.

Bashō, poet and traveler

Bashō is known mostly as a poet, and I remember encountering him first nigh half my life ago, in tenth grade World Literature. In the West, Bashō is known mostly for his haiku, those short, meditative poems that elementary school teachers use to teach syllables.

But lurking in the musty book room, on the shelves piled three stacks deep, I found a book of other writing by Bashō: The Narrow Road to the Deep North, it’s called, and Other Travel Sketches. Its five pieces follow five journeys Bashō took from Tokyo, culminating in a six-month trek into northern Japan, which the introduction to the book identifies as “largely unexplored territory” in Bashō’s time, representative of “all the mystery there was in the universe.”

Reading with these western eyes

I am greatly enjoying the book. I am just beginning the final of the sketches, the title piece, the one of the five most regarded as a classic of Japanese literature. There is a beautiful calmness to Bashō’s writing, and some relatability. The prose and poetry of which the texts are composed are contemplative, conscious of nature, divorced, perhaps, from the ordinary bustle of urban life, yet not from the close intimacies of the human body and certainly the mind.

And yet, and perhaps it is because I am reading these just before bed, when I am tired, or perhaps it is child of the school year’s mounting stress, but I have an acute sense, as I read, that I am missing the core. It is a sense that, with each page, I say, “Okay,” and I understand I should be pausing, reflecting, trying to devote my mind’s attention to these words with the same attention Bashō gave the things he saw–yet I struggle to do so. It’s something I think I used to be better at, and as I have grown a little older, I realize it is more difficult to do. It’s something I’d like to recommit to.

Bashō had studied Zen Buddhism earlier in his life, and these records of his travel make frequent references to the Buddha. I know a little about Zen, about its rejection of the straightforward meaning, its blending of Buddhist philosophy with Shinto mysticism, and I think of the enigmatic Kōan, those riddles which refuse to open to the logical mind–

I am conscious, in other words, that I come to Bashō with a particular set of eyes, eyes steeped in Western literature and culture, even as I make these isolated journeys into other canons. Our ways of understanding are built by the texts we know. It may take me a lot of reading before I can read Bashō with the same confidence of step I might bring to Gatsby.

Rainy day, misty morning. I’m quite guilty, I think, of posting too many sunny photos of the fjords. The reality is, they normally look like this. But perhaps even this photo is disingenuous, for I’ve chosen a particularly beautiful rainstorm. Such is the peril of self-reporting, I suppose. We so often give an impression that is subset of the norm. I wonder what Bashō’s “normal” was. I wonder how different it was from what his writing lets us see.

Travels in genre

The five texts in Bashō’s Sketches blend prose and poetry together, in a form Bashō called haibun. Bashō will write in prose for several paragraphs, the plot of his journey, and then will break into haiku to linger over an image or a moment.

This combination of poetry and prose is different from a verse narrative. The relationship between the two forms shifts back and forth in different parts of the text:

At times, the narrative itself lies almost entirely in the prose, as Bashō recounts the particulars of his journey. Then the poems highlight particular moments, yet often not providing additional factual information. Instead, the poems are a kind of reframing of details already given in the prose. The reader pauses, feels, appreciates, perceives a meaningful relationship between otherwise discreet details. The poem ends. The prose returns, continuing its wayward course.

At other times, the relationship is nearly reversed. Beginning with a poem, Bashō then further discusses its subject in prose. He deepens its image, proliferating detail, and the two modes of text thus blend together in a hybrid of attention and reflection.

In a third constellation, Bashō’s prose nearly falls away. He introduces poems with a quick prose line, usually the place of composition only, then gives one, two, or several haiku.

In all three, what I love is the contextualization of each poem. In this blended form, the strands of thought stretch beyond the poem, showing us what came before and after, linking each poem to its time and place and circumstance. It’s something that I don’t often see in Western poetry, where the poem is so often lifted from its generating context to stand alone, homage to timelessness, a universality.

Bashō’s travel writing recalls to me a reading I attended, on a study abroad program in Ireland, Seamus Heaney, the summer of 2009. We crowded into a lecture hall in Dublin, probably a hundred students and this venerable poet. And although Heaney’s poetry had not captured me reading from the page, when I heard him speak, it was a different something. The way I thought about it afterward, Heaney spoke his way into each poem, recounting its moment of inception, the feeling, the tragedy, the circumstances mundane and profound. And then reading the poem itself, it was a knot, a thickening of the meaning, so that I felt a kind of connection beyond the story itself, to the more significant meaning of the whole. And after each, Heaney talked his way out again, a seamless blend of one form and another, the poem and the ad-libbed storytelling. Perhaps at a poetry reading, what Heaney did was not unusual. But it struck me at the time, and I continue to recall it now. Bashō has brought me there again.

I think the lesson here is of form’s flexibility. Sometimes as writers, we hold ourselves to a form. I am a poet, we might say, or I am a fiction writer. Writing is categorized by genre to make it easier to find, or to guide our expectations of what we’ll find inside. All of this is for good reason, I understand, and yet let us not forget that each genre is foremost a construction, and it need not bind our efforts as we work to pen the contents of our minds and hearts.

Part of today’s post I wrote outside, on the porch, with tea, to make the most of a sunny day. It was really cold. I was wearing gloves and hat and coat. It was worth it, though. It felt like something Bashō might have approved of.

Last thoughts

What is the takeaway from this post? Perhaps that too is a Western notion, that we should have a particular result at the end of a blog post. So it is, and that is fine. The utilitarianism of that demand for purpose–it has brought us far. But this time, and, I suppose, other times in other posts, I don’t have a solid answer. I am going to finish The Narrow Road to the Deep North. I’m going to keep trying to broaden my reading. For my writing? I’m going to keep a careful eye on genre. I’m going to use it, challenge it, play with it. Will I try some haibun? Maybe I will.

How are things? How is writing going? How is life going? Best wishes for the coming week. I’ll close now with another quote from Bashō:

At the beach of Suma:

The moon is in the sky,
But as if someone were absent
The whole scene is empty–
The summer at Suma

I saw the moon,
But somehow I was left
Unsatisfied–
The summer at Suma.

It was in the middle of April when I wandered out to the beach of Suma. The sky was slightly overcast, and the moon on a short night of early summer had special beauty. The mountains were dark with foliage. When I thought it was about time to hear the first voice of the cuckoo, the light of the sun touched the eastern horizon, and as it increased, I began to see on the hills of Ueno ripe ears of wheat tinged with reddish brown and fishermen’s huts scattered here and there among the flowers of white poppy.

At sunrise I saw
Tanned faces of fishermen
Among the flowers
Of white poppy.

From The Records of a Travel-worn Satchel, by Matsuo Bashō, 1687-8
Bundled-up blogging.

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