Friday, August 5, 2022

A Poet's Roving Thoughts: Make Haibun New through the Chinese Poetic Past by Chen-ou Liu

(Author's Note: My essay, "Make Haibun New through the Chinese Poetic Past: Basho's Transformation of Haikai Prose," was first published in Simply Haiku, 8:1, Summer 2010, then reprinted in Haibun Today, 6:1, March 2012, and now featured in the Encore Articles section of  contemporary haibun online, 18:2, August 2022)

Make Haibun New through Chinese Poetic Past: 
Basho’s Transformation of Haikai Prose

Basho believed that the poet had to work along both axes. To work only in the present would result in poetry that was fleeting. To work just in the past, on the other hand, would be to fall out of touch with the fundamental nature of haikai, which was rooted in the everyday world. 

-- Haruo Shirane

In the narrow sense of the word, haikai, which gave birth to haiku, originally referred to the humorous poems found in the first imperially commissioned anthology of poetry.  It was later used to describe popular comic linked verse (haikai no renga), distinguishing itself from the more refined, classical linked verse (renga).  Broadly speaking, it is used to “describe genres deriving from haikai or reflecting haikai spirit, such as haiku, haibun, renku, and haikai kikobun, literary travel account”.1 During the second half of the 17th century, there were innovative movements within Japanese haikai circles, and they had transformed haikai from an entertaining pastime to a respected poetic form.2 Furthermore, haiku, originated from hokku which was the opening verse of a haikai sequence, has flowered for four centuries and established itself not only as an autonomous genre of Japanese short verse form, but as a globalized verse form in many languages. As the putative founder of haiku, Matsuo Basho made enormous contribution to the refinement, success, and popularization of Japanese haiku and its related genres.3

As Koji Kawamoto emphasizes in his essay dealing with the use and disuse of tradition in Basho’s haiku, “the key to [haiku’s] unabated vigor lies in Basho’s keen awareness of the utility of the past in undertaking an avant-garde enterprise, which he summed up in his famous adage “fueki ryuko,”4 which literally means “the unchanging and the ever-changing.” This haikai poetic ideal was advocated during his trip through the northern region of Japan. He stressed that “haikai must constantly change (ryuko), find the new (atarashimi), shed its own past, even as it seeks qualities that transcend time.”5  However, his notion of the new “lay not so much in the departure from or rejection of the perceived tradition as in the reworking of established practices and conventions, in creating new counterpoints to the past.”6 In Edo culture, the ability to create the new through the old was a more preferred form of newness than the ability to be unique and individual7. This Japanese view of “newness” still pervades and is in sharp contrast with that of  the West .

Veteran haiku poet and editor Cor van den Heuvel gives an incisive explanation about these perspective differences: “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.”8

For Japanese haikai poets, these literary associations, poetic diction, classical Japanese and Chinese texts were regarded as the source of authority as well as the contested ground for re-visioning. Haikai thus emerged from the “interaction of socially and temporally disparate worlds, from the interaction of a seemingly unchanging, idealized past (that included China) with a constantly, rapidly changing present, the centripetal force of the former serving to hold in check the centrifugal force of the latter.”9 In typical haikai fashion, it operates on two axes: on the horizontal axis, it captures a moment of keenly perceived, a description of a scene from the contemporary world; on the vertical axis, it leads back into the poetic past, to history, to other poems10. The skilful juxtaposition of these two disparate worlds can enrich and deepen one’s haikai.

Take one of Basho’s most famous haiku as an example:

summer grasses –
traces of dreams
of ancient warriors

The haiku above is taken from a climatic episode in his most-read travel journal, The Narrow Road to the Interior (Oku no Hosomichi).  It operates on two axes. The fragment (line 1) is a scenic description from the present world, the site of a formal battlefield; the phrase (lines 2 and 3) “refers to the passage of time: the summer grasses are the ‘aftermath’ of the dreams of glory.”11 Thematically speaking, this haiku resonates well with the opening lines from one of Tu Fu’s poems: “The state is destroyed, /rivers and hills remain./ The city walls turn to spring, /grasses and trees are green”.12 Furthermore, this dual vision of a former battlefield can be found in its Chinese archetype in The True Treasury of the Ancient Style: Essay on Mourning for the Dead at an Ancient Battlefield by Li Hua, in which “ the poet gazes down at an old battlefield, imagines the terrible carnage, listens to the voices of the dead, before returning to the present to ponder the meaning of the past.”13 In juxtaposing these disparate worlds, past and contemporary, Japanese and Chinese, the dreams in Basho’s haiku are the dreams of not only Japanese warriors, but also of those who have fought their battles. More importantly, summer grasses (natsukusa), a classical seasonal word for summer, was used to be associated with “eroticism and fertility;”14 through allusion to Tu Fu’s famous poem on the transience of  civilization, Basho transformed this seasonal word into the one associated with the “ephemerality of human ambitions.”15

As Haruo Shirane demonstrates in his groundbreaking book, Traces of Dreams: Landscape, Cultural Memory, and the Poetry of Basho, Basho believed that "the poet had to work along both axes: to work only in the present would result in poetry that was fleeting; to work just in the past, on the other hand, would be to fall out of touch with the fundamental nature of haikai, which was rooted in the everyday world."16 Viewed as a key figure who elevated haikai from an entertaining pastime to a respected poetic form, Basho had developed a set of related poetic ideals widely utilized by his disciples, fellow poets, and successive followers since the mid-1680s.17 These new ideals were their sincere efforts to deal with the fundamental paradox of the late-seventeenth-century haikai, one "which looked to the past for inspiration and authority and yet rejected it, which parodied the classical (and Chinese) tradition even as they sought to become part of it, and which paid homage to the 'ancients' and yet stressed newness."18

The haikai Basho envisioned was marked for its newness, for "both new perspectives and new sociolinguistic frontiers in contemporary Japan as well as in reconstructed versions of the Japanese and Chinese past."19 In what follows, I will discuss how Basho re-established and refined a mixed genre of verse and prose called haibun (haikai prose), which is exemplified, through his incorporation and recontextualization of the Chinese poetic past in his masterpiece, The Narrow Road to the Interior.

First of all, broadly speaking, haibun was developed before Basho and written in the form of short essays, prefaces or headnotes to hokku, such as Kigin's Mountain Well (1648). Its prose style resembled that of classical prose.20 In 1671, a well-known Teimon poet Yamaoka Genrin (1631-1672) published his experimental work of haibun, entitled Takaragura (The Treasure House), and in it, he "[emulated] Zhuangzi's gugen [(Chinese, yuyan)]21 by revealing beauty and virtue in ordinary household apparatus."22 His work was "highly metaphorical and allegorical,"23 it didn't have great influences on the way haikai poets at the time wrote their haibun.

It was not until shortly after Basho returned from his journey to Oku that he became more focused on developing a different style of prose, which was infused with a haikai spirit. Around 1690, in a letter to Kyorai, he named this new haikai prose haibun, which was characterized by the "prominent inclusion of haikai words (haigon), particularly a combination of vernacular Japanese (zokugo) and Chinese words (kango)."24 After the publication the first anthology of the new haibun, entitled Prose Collection of Japan, Basho was recognized as "the first to create such a model [for haikai prose] and breathe elegance and life in it."25

Secondly, as Haruo Shirane stresses, Basho's The Narrow Road to the Interior, "may best be understood as an attempt to reveal the different possibilities of haibun in the form of travel literature."26 A lot of commentators also point out that Basho's work is less a factual record of a travel journal account, where haiku commemorate real but isolated moments keenly perceived on the journey, than it is a highly related set of about fifty haibun structured to convey a specific literary effect.27

For example, Basho's travelling companion, Sora, recorded in his diary that on their visit to Nikko, they first visited the temples and shrine on the mountain and then rested at Hotoke Gozaemon's inn on their last night. Basho rearranged this series of events – resting first and visiting later – in separate Nikko haibun in order to dramatize their stay with Hotoke Gozaemon. In doing so, he was able to compare/contrast three schools of thought: 1. Shinto (the shrine and its history); 2. Confucian (Hotoke Gozaemon reminded Basho of one important passage from The Analects of Confucius); 3. Buddhist (describing in two passages Sora's religious preparations for the journey and their improvised Buddhist "summer purification retreat").28

Furthermore, it is "best considered a long prose poem, which gives vernacular and Chinese phrases the cadence and tonality of poetry."29 That is because many commentators observe that Basho's prose conveys poetic beauty through concise imagery, making the boundary between prose and verse disappear.30

Therefore, there is no general agreement on exactly where the haibun breaks occur. The majority of English translations do not indicate them. As a result, most readers will look upon The Narrow Road to the Interior as a travel journal infused with haiku.31 Nonetheless, the haibun is used to divide the text into subsections, indicating a "discrete passage which characteristically ends in one or more haiku."32 This is such a non-linear text, freely mixing prose with verse in a way as to demand a relational reading. Significant meaning of a work of this sort is embedded with the interaction of text and context.33

Thirdly, as is well known, Basho made use in his prose of the associative techniques utilized in haikai composition. "To create associations is to set up correspondence (taio) . . . that [novelist and literary essayist, Atsushi Mori,] sees as characterizing the work's movement and source of energy."34 He describes taio as "something akin to fields of tension and balance between all manner of concrete and abstract things: between words, phrases, or images, between motifs or themes, between human beings, ideas, places, poems, and most importantly between Basho's text, the Oku no Hosomichi itself, and other literary texts of the past . . . States of tension and balance are achieved and then broken against a background of newly formed balances."35 According to Mori, the balance Basho had in his mind was "balance as antithesis,"36 a notion that is more in line with the Chinese cosmological concept of yoking yin and yang and being transformed. In his The Narrow Road to the Interior, attentive readers can see Basho's constant employment of the interplay of opposites (yin and yang) that brings about transformation.

From a structuralist perspective, Mori claims that this law of change is embodied in the following four-part pattern as a structural principle at work in The Narrow Road to the Interior: First, there is a beginning (Japanese, ki ), and it is matched with an apt response (Japanese, sho); later, ki and sho, one after the other, are matched by transformation (Japanese, ten), the newly-formed element(s), and finally all three are matched by a ending (Japanese, ketsu).37 This ki-sho-ten-ketsu- structure mirrors that of Chinese short verse, jue ju. A jue ju is composed of four lines, with each line containing five or seven Chinese characters and carrying two or more parallels of content and phonetic tone. The structural function of each line is described as follows: line 1 sets the theme (Chinese, qi), line 2 develops the theme (Chinese, cheng) through expanding imagery and mood, line 3 transforms the theme (Chinese, zhuan) by comparing/contrasting with line 1, and line 4 resolves all into an ending (Chinese, he).

Mori argues that the ki-sho-ten-ketsu principle shapes Basho's work as follows: the ki part not only includes the opening passage but also extends to the Shirakawa Barrier crossing, the sho part is made up of the sections between the Shirakawa Barrier crossing and the visit with the painter Kaemon in Sendai, the ten part includes the sections describing the travelers' passage along a portion of the road from Sedai en route to the Tsubo no Ishibumi, and finally the ketsu part corresponds with the sections portraying the often hurried walk down the Echigo-Echizen road along the Japan Sea coast and into Ogaki.38 Mori's reading of Basho's work is heavily dependent on his conception of taio, and in his view, the most numerous correspondences are those between verses: between waka and Chinese verses, for instance, of the type discussed in the Kurobane passage or between two hokku in the same, or in contiguous, or in widely separate haibun."39

Fourthly, in terms of writing style, The Narrow Road to the Interior is characterized by a "highly elliptical, rhythmic, Chinese style of parallel words (tsuigo) and parallel phrases (tsuiku)."40 Unlike classical Japanese prose which was based on an alternating 5/7 syllabic rhythm, Basho's haibun was accorded with "Chinese prose models, particularly Six Dynasties parallel prose (p'ien-wen) – which used four- and six-word parallel phrases, emphasized verbal parallelism, and stressed tonal euphony and allusion – and the Ancient Style (ku-wen), which emerged in the Tang period in reaction to the p'ien-wen style and which often generated a rhythm based on the four-character line."41

Chinese parallel prose is marked for its parallel phrases, tending toward rhyming and frequent allusion. Part of the reason is because of the monosyllabic structure of its language "represented by discrete symbols of uniform size and vocally expressed through a phonological structure capable of sophisticated rhyming."42 Due to linguistic differences, literary Japanese is not disposed to tonal parallelism. However, a kind of parallelism, such as syntactical and semantic ones, is possible through stressing paired words or phrases, parallel syntax, parallels of content or theme.

Take the passage on the Tsubo Stone Inscription for example:

    Mountains disappear, rivers flow,
    roads change;
    rocks are buried, hidden in dirt,
    trees age, saplings replace them;
    the virtues of travel
    the joys of existence
    forgetting the labors of travel
    I shed only tears.43 

The skillful use of parallel syntax and contrastive words – such as mountain and river, rock and tree, and travel and life – generates a "folksong type of rhythm and a Chinese poetic pattern."44

This renewed haibun style was widely adopted by haibun writers, such as Yokoi Yayu, one of the most famous literary triad in the second half of the eighteenth century, an era praised for the revival of haiku and haibun.45 From the open line of the haibun on tobacco in Yayu's well-known haibun collection entitled Uzuragoromo, we can see a striking example of syntactical parallelism:

    You may get drowsy journeying along a road at night,
    but you cannot dangle a teapot from your waist to refresh yourself.
    You may awake forlorn one autumn day,
    but you cannot feed yourself when you cannot reach the rice-cakes on the shelf.46 

This passage is almost immediately followed by,

    It may well be that Tsai Yu looked for a firebrand in the kitchen stove
    so that he might light up after his afternoon nap,
    and that Kojiju craned her neck toward the lamp to light her tobacco
    as she waited through the night for her love.47 

In addition to syntactical parallelism, an attentive reader can notice a semantic parallel: "'stove' in the first line is complemented by 'lamp' in the second, and '(day) nap's eye-opener' by 'nightwaiting.'"48

Besides parallelism, the frequent use of allusion is prominent in Chinese parallel prose; it can also be found in The Narrow Road to the Interior. As Shirane demonstrates in Traces of Dreams, Basho's prose and poetry is highly allusive.49 For example, the opening passage is the most important section of the work that determines the theme, tone, movement, and goals.50 It also describes multiple departures – "the hermit-poet's philosophical departure from a particular way of life and his actual physical departure from the hermitage, a symbol of life he abandons"51 – and it is a haibun written in a Li-esque style. In his book, Mori discusses the complexity and richness of Basho's allusion to Li Po's poem and his skilful use of parallelism.52

There has been a steady stream of collections of essays by major Japanese scholars on Basho's relationships to earlier literary traditions. Jiro Hirota's multiple studies on Basho and his Chinese and Japanese classical connections since 1968 began a new era of Basho scholarship. He first researched on Chinese Taoist, then Neo-Confucian and later Buddhist influences.53 Beacuse he "examines the primary and secondary sources to which Basho could have had access (popular poetic handbooks, collections, and commentaries, for instance) and documents possible Japanese and Chinese sources in each of the genres in which Basho and his disciples worked . . . his studies have become, among other things, one of the most reliable sources (reference works, really) on the process by which Basho mixed a variety of languages."54

Finally, in addition to modelling on Chinese parallel prose, Basho adopted his haikai approach to the Chinese fu, a dominant genre of Han Dynasty literature.55 It was a kind of rhymed prose poetry based on the ornate and extravagant style of Chu ci (Chu lyrics). The prose provides the necessary exposition written in the form of questions and answers for exploration of an object or natural phenomenon, and the verse its rhapsodic language. It employs complex rhyme patterns and balanced parallel phrases. Take one of Basho's haibun on Matsushima for example:

"Well, it has been said many times, but Matsushima is the most beautiful place in all of Japan. First of all, it can hold its head up to Tung-t'ing Lake or West Lake. Letting in the sea from the southeast, it fills the bay, three leagues wide, with the tide of Che-chiang. Matsushima has gathered countless islands: the high islands point their fingers to heaven, those lying down crawl over the waves. Some are piled two deep, some three deep. To the left, the islands are separated from each other, but to the right they are linked. Some islands seem to be carrying islands on their backs, others to be embracing them, like someone caressing a child. The green of the pine is dark and dense, the branches and leaves bent by the salty sea breeze – it seems as if the branches have been deliberately twisted. The landscape creates a tranquil, soft feeling, like a beautiful lady powdering her face. Did the god of the mountain create this long ago, in the age of the gods? Is this the work of the Creator? What words could a human being use to describe this?"56 

The language of the passage above is highly figurative and allusive. In the opening lines, Basho tried to elevate the beauty of Matsushima to an iconic status through comparison with and allusion to one of the Great Four Lakes of China, Tung-t'ing Lake, and the famous tidal bore on the Chien-tang River in Che-chiang province, two iconic scenes portrayed by numerous classical Chinese poems. Later, he employed the parallel, contrastive phrases – such as the high islands point their fingers to heaven, those lying down crawl over the waves – that resemble "the couplet structure of the Chinese fu while possessing haikai humor."57 At the end of the passage, he stirred emotions about and reflection upon the status of Matsushima in the reader through a series of heartfelt questions, which is another technique utilized in the Chinese fu. In the classical Japanese poetic tradition, Matsushima was used to be associated with hovels, beach shelters, boats of the fisherfolk, and Ojima island,58 and it was now transformed into the most beautiful place in Japan through Basho's fu-esque haibun. The same techniques were also utilized in his description of Kisagata, a "notable example of Chinese-Japanese hybrid style, interweaving Chinese, fu-esque motifs with classical Japanese prose."59

In The Narrow Road to the Interior, Basho explored a variety of prose styles by combining conventions of classical Japanese travel literature with Chinese prose models infused with socio-historic-literary references, opening up the diverse possibilities of haibun composition. Unlike the majority of the haibun we have read in the English language haiku-related and haibun journals that place an unbalanced emphasis on the principles of shasei ("sketch from life") and the here-and-now, Basho's haibun are allusive, figurative, and infused with parallels phrases and contrastive words, all of which are used to enhance literary effects and add aesthetic-historical depth to the poems. In my view, maybe it is time for anyone who is interested in writing haibun to re-think Basho's poetic ideal of "the unchanging and the ever-changing" situated in one's own socio-historic-cultural contexts, and to make haibun anew through the poetic past of one's own literary legacy and shared ones from the rest of the world.


1 Peipei Qiu, Basho and the Dao: the Zhuangzi and the Transformation of Haikai, Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2005, p. 200.

2 Ibid., pp. 1-12.

3 Haruo Shirane, Traces of Dreams : Landscape, Cultural Memory, and the Poetry of Basho, Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1998, pp. 1-29.

4 Koji Kawamoto, “The Use and Disuse of Tradition in Basho’s Haiku and Imagist Poetry,” Poetics Today, Vol. 20, No. 4 (Winter, 1999), p. 709.

5 See Shirane, p. 294.

6. Ibid., p. 5.

7 Ibid.

8 Cor van den Heuvel, The Haiku Anthology : Haiku and Senryu in English, New York : W.W. Norton, 1999, p. ix-x.

9 See  Shirane, pp. 4-5.

10 Haruo Shirane, “Beyond the Haiku Moment: Basho, Buson and Modern Haiku myths”, Modern Haiku, XXXI:1 (winter-spring 2000),

11 See Shirane, p. 238.

12 Ibid.

13 Ibid., p. 239.

14 Ibid.

15 Ibid.

16 See Shirane, Modern Haiku.

17 See Shirane, pp. 254-78.

18 Ibid., p. 28.

19 Ibid., p. 8.

20 Ibid., p. 213.

21 Gugen is a literary device functioning like allegory or parable. In the Zhuangzi, it often refers to the words spoken through the mouths of historical or fictional figures to make them more compelling. Genrin took it as the essence of the Zhuangzi.

22 See Qiu, p. 6.

23 Ibid., p. 20.

24 See Shirane, p. 213, 215.

25 Ibid., p. 215.

26 Ibid., p. 212.

27 Christine Murasaki Millett, “’Bush Clover and Moon.’ A Relational Reading of Oku no Hosomichi,” Monumenta Nipponica, Vol. 52, No. 3 (Autumn, 1997), pp. 327.

28 Eleanor Kerkham, “And Us Too Enclosed in Mori Atsushi’s Ware Mo Mata, Oku no Hosomichi,” in Matsuo Basho’s Poetic Spaces : Exploring Haikai Intersections, Eleanor Kerkham, ed., New York, NY : Palgrave Macmillan, 2006, p. 196.

29 See Shirane, p. 216.

30 Makoto Ueda, Matsuo Basho, New York: Twayne Publishers, 1970, p. 112.

31 See Millett, p. 330-1.

32 Ibid., p. 328.

33 Ibid., p. 327.

34 See Kerkham, p. 176.

35 Ibid., pp. 175-6.

36 Ibid., p. 176.

37 Ibid.

38 Ibid., pp. 177-80.

39 Ibid., p186. For further discussion on this issue, see pp. 186-8.

40 See Shirane, p. 217.

41 Ibid., p. 327.

42 Lawrence Rogers, “Rags and Tatters. The Uzuragoromo of Yokoi Yayu,” Monumenta Nipponica, Vol. 34, No. 3 (Autumn, 1979), pp. 281

43 See Shirane, p. 218.

44 Ibid.

45 See Rogers, p. 279.

46 Ibid., pp. 281-2.

47 Ibid., pp. 282.

48 Ibid.

49, Ibid., p. 22-3.

50 See Kerkham, p. 188.

51 Ibid.

52 Ibid., pp. 188-95.

53 Eleanor Kerkham, “Reviewed work(s): Traces of Dreams: Landscape, Cultural Memory, and the Poetry of Basho by Haruo Shirane,” The Journal of the Association of Teachers of Japanese, Vol. 34, No. 1 (Apr., 2000), pp. 107-8.

54 Ibid., pp.107-8.

55 See Shirane, pp. 220-3.

56 See Shirane, p. 220.

57 Ibid., p. 221.

58 Ibid., p. 220.

59 Ibid., p. 221-3.

FYI: I wrote the following haibun written in response both to the frequently mis/used editorial comment --"it has been done before" -- and to "nothing new under the sun" (Ecclesiastes, 1:9)

Editorial Advice
for Basho

rejection notice
a sunflower bending
to the wind

“You will notice that we veer away from authorial comment, abstract language, and most importantly, from the imposition of human qualities on the natural world. Instead, we choose haiku that achieve resonance through the juxtaposition of disparate images, credibly present in the same place at the same time.”

Sunlight slanting through the window on my coffee-stained desk. Reading Basho’s death poem, I can’t help but wonder: if he were alive today, would he be published at all?

rewriting haiku --
a scribble of swallows
over the moors

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