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A Quarterly Journal
Jeffrey Woodward, Founder & General Editor
Volume 6, Number 3, September 2012

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Ray Rasmussen
Edmonton, Alberta, Canada


Commentary on Bashō’s "Hiraizumi"

Poetry is the revelation of a feeling that the poet believes to be interior and personal which the reader recognizes as his own.
                                                                                                                                              ~ Salvatore Quasimodo1

Part I: Commentary

Bashō's travel journals, some of the earliest examples of haibun, are accounts of his late-in-life walking journeys through Japan. They are often cited as important reading for serious students of the form and for anyone who writes in a haiku-genre. More generally, they are held up as good reading for people who enjoy poetic prose and who want a glimpse of the spirit of a man who lived several centuries ago.

For this commentary, I've selected the passage "Hiraizumi" from The Narrow Road to the Deep North about the demise of the Fujiwara clan. I chose it because, as Quasimodo suggests, in it I recognized feelings akin to my own in recent travels in the Southwestern United States. (You may wish to read "Hiraizumi" prior to reading this commentary. If so, go here to open a second window.)

There are several keys to understanding Bashō's styling of his haibun compositions. The first is the amount and level of descriptive detail—what might be called 'reportage’—information that supports the storyline and provides a context for the poetry. Examples include:

The ruins of the main gate greeted my eyes a mile before I came upon Lord Hidehira's mansion, which had been utterly reduced to rice-paddies . . .

The ruined house of Lord Yasuhira was located to the north of the barrier-gate of Koromogaseki, thus blocking the entrance from the Nambu area and forming a protection against barbarous intruders from the north.

Of course, without some measure of lyrical phrasing—a second key element—the piece would be monotonous, or what Ken Jones, in a critical summary of contemporary haibun writing, has called “Bald narrations of country walks, rendered in flat, deadpan prose . . . .”2 Lyrical passages that touched me included:

It was here that the glory of three generations of the Fujiwara family passed away like a snatch of empty dream . . .

When a country is defeated, there remain only mountains and rivers, and on a ruined castle in spring only grasses thrive.

As with other poetry forms, the distinction between showing and telling and the balance between the two is a third important aspect of Bashō's style. In this piece there is but a modest amount of “telling”—direct expressions of the poet’s feelings and thoughts:

I sat down on my hat and wept bitterly till I almost forgot time.

A fourth key element of Bashō’s composition is its succinctness. In a very short passage, Bashō presents a vivid portrait of the remains of the Fujiwara clan’s castle and dwellings.

A fifth aspect is Bashō's closing haiku which can be viewed both as a summary of his central point and as a more general poetic expression about that most serious human foible called “war.” As with many of the haiku in Narrow Road his haiku step out to a new level of insight and lyricism:

summer grasses
all that remains
of soldiers' dreams

~ Bashō (trans. L. Stryk)

Putting it all together, what is haibun according to Bashō?

  • A body of descriptive detail
  • Some poetic phrasings
  • A focus on showing as opposed to telling, or put another way, a modest amount of telling.
  • An overall succinctness that allows us to enter and leave a scene in a short reading.
  • A haiku that takes readers to a new level of feeling and insight.

While these might be seen as the nuts and bolts of haibun as practiced by Bashō, they don't explain the whole. Most haibun can be thought of as a form of storytelling—the parts have to be put together in a way that captivates the reader. As such, haibun prose goes well beyond a typical account of an outing which as Cobb has put it "is often as disorganized and unrooted in thematic content as a set of holiday snaps."3 Haibun goes far deeper in its storyline theme than the "go here, see this, eat that, stay there" type of travel writing that one finds in newspapers and magazines. Of course, good travel writing can also be literary. Nor is haibun mere journalism. Here’s Cobb’s viewpoint: "I view the haibun writer as a literary artist, someone who has high regard for authenticity, but not afraid to bend facts when it suits, setting poetic truth above a factual narrative, and free to rearrange chronology." Indeed, it has been reported elsewhere that Bashō took the liberty to change events and facts and even invented fictitious events.3 The implication is that he did so in order to achieve a literary effect.

Summing up, "Hiraizumi" has the key elements of haibun composition to lift the piece beyond a mere “story.” Bashō's piece takes the reader into the Japan of several centuries ago, into the cultural-historical sensibilities of its people, and into a poetic style of expression that instructs today’s writers.

Part II: A Personal Recognition

"Hiraizumi" brought to mind the ruins that I had recently come upon in one of southern Utah's primitive areas. After hiking several hours, I found a way down into the remote, seldom-visited Slickhorn Canyon. There I unexpectedly came on the ruins of early Puebloans—the builders of cliff dwellings—commonly called the “Anasazi.”

Some of the ruins looked as if they had been abandoned only yesterday; others were reduced to little more than piles of rubble. Still visible were the finger impressions made when the builders pressed mud as mortar in between the building stones.

Bashō doesn't tell us what led to the demise of the Fujiwara clan, but from the omnipresent wars of the last century and from the records of Japanese historians, we can readily infer the causes. And what about the Anasazi? They disappeared from the area around 1100 AD. While there is neither a written nor an oral remembering of the Anasazi, research from the natural record—the ring thickness of sections of 1000 year old trees and the carbon dating of debris from the sites – tell us that they faced a 100 year drought. We can guess that skirmishes developed between those whose farms had failed and had thus become nomadic raiders and those who had managed to carry on.

I sat in the shade near one ruin that had handprints painted above the dwelling's doorway. I imagined a dejected man sitting head down after a fruitless hunt, a woman preparing an evening meal from the sparse pickings dictated by a prolonged drought, and children, hungry, perhaps en route to starvation. All about me were pot shards, the broken remains of generations.

As did Bashō, I felt tears coming to my eyes.

Part III: A Conversation of Sorts with Bashō

After reading Bashō’s "Hiraizumi," I decided to pen a haibun modeled on it (see"Slickhorn Canyon")4. I wanted to explore the structure of his style while utilizing my own experiences in Slickhorn Canyon as context. Whether the piece succeeds or fails is of little importance. Writing it helped me to identify with Bashō's journey through his Japan. And it reminded me that the plight of the Anasazi is one that has been repeated throughout our war-inclined human history, that these ruins were not just interesting artefacts, but places where families and clans once lived and then disappeared.

After writing it, I felt as if I had had a deep conversation with a travelling monk who loved to write poetry.

Part IV: Derivative Writing – Of What Value?

What a good thing Adam had—when he said a good thing, he knew nobody had said it before.
                                                                                                                                      ~ Mark Twain

The Oxford English Dictionary defines “derivative” as “imitative of the work of another artist, writer, etc.,” and adds, “. . . and usually disapproved of for that reason.”

When writing “Slickhorn Canyon,” I was ambivalent about composing a haibun which was obviously derivative and I was particularly concerned about sending it off to an editor who might view it as mere copying. Lurking beneath this “negative set,” like small dark shadows, are common pronouncements about writing such as “it’s important to be original” and “we should write in our own authentic voices.”

Counter to these pronouncements is the argument that all art is derivative—that in one way or another we have all been influenced by the literary canon that preceded our impulse to pen our own words. Indeed, an admonition those editors are apt to give to aspiring writers when rejecting their haibun is “Read a lot of haiku and haibun.” Isn’t this a short cut for saying “Let the style of your predecessors influence you and perhaps you too will be able to spin a worthy (aka publishable) haibun”?

But why do it? I have several reasons. First, penning “Slickhorn Canyon” gave me an understanding of how Bashō approached his poetry. Second, it provided me with a new way of approaching a story that I wanted to tell. And wading into Bashō’s piece in such depth helped me to develop a better feel for the story he was telling.

There are other reasons. Cor van den Heuvel offers this: “The writing of variations on certain subjects in haiku, sometimes using the same or similar phrases (or even changing a few words of a previous haiku), is one of the most interesting challenges the genre offers a poet and can result in refreshingly different ways of ‘seeing anew’ for the reader. This is an aspect of traditional Japanese haiku which is hard for many Westerners, with their ideas of uniqueness and Romantic individualism, to accept. But some of the most original voices in haiku do not hesitate to dare seeming derivative if they see a way of reworking an ‘old’ image.”5

In having penned a derivative piece, there are two things that are important to keep in mind. The first is that an acknowledgment should be provided so that readers and editors can understand that the piece is modeled on the work of another writer. A typical way this is done is by adding a footnote such as “After Bashō’s ‘Hiraizumi.’” The second is to “own” the piece. This is accomplished by putting your own context and sensibilities into the other writer’s structure.


Notes: :

1. Salvatore Quasimodo, poet and literary critic, was the winner of the 1959 Nobel Prize in Literature.

2. Ken Jones, "Writing Reality: Fictional Haibun Stories," Contemporary Haibun Online 3:3, Sept 2007.

3. David Cobb, "A Few Timely Heresies about English Haibun," Blithe Spirit 10:3 September 2000 and reprinted in Haibun Today 5:4 December 2011.

4. Ray Rasmussen's haibun, "Slickhorn Canyon," which was modeled on Bashō's "Hiraizumi," was published in Haibun Today 5:4 December 2011.

5. Cor van den Heuvel, The Haiku Anthology: Haiku and Senryu in English, New York: W.W. Norton, 1999, p. ix-x as cited in Chen-ou Liu, “Make Haibun New through the Chinese Poetic Past: Basho's Transformation of Haikai Prose,” Simply Haiku 8:1 Summer 2010.

An earlier version of this commentary was published in A Hundred Gourds 1:1 December 2011.

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