Saturday, June 04, 2005

Bashō's Haiku and the Evening Cool

As the evenings grow longer in late Spring and voices from the clubs down the hill from my studio drift in on the breeze, I feel a human quickening that the 17th Century Japanese poet Bashō would have understood. Art's ability to speak across the centuries never fails to inspire me and provide hope for the future.

I am currently reading "Bashō's Haiku", translated by David Landis Barnhill. Barnhill's translations from the original Japanese are crisp. Each word is chosen carefully and the original verse order is maintained. These translations have an almost clipped brevity - like a Zen master's clap to focus his students. Barnhill's deft word choice allow Bashō's images to suggest layers of meaning without overlaying a modern American voice onto the poems.

The Porcelain Sea 48
"The Porcelain Sea"
48"x38" oil on linen 2005

Matsuo Bashō (1644-1694) was born into the samurai class, but rejected that world after the death of his master and became a wandering poet and teacher. During his travels across Japan, he became a lay Zen monk and studied history and classical poetry. His own poems contain a mystical quality expressed through images from the natural world.

Barnhill explains that " in the early 1690's, Bashō began to emphasize lightheartedness and day-to-day subject matter, promoting a new aesthetic of "lightness" (karumi)."

One of Bashō's poems describes this lightness of being through a description of vibrant nights in Kyoto:

"The evening cool at riverside, Fourth Avenue," they call it. From early Sixth Month with its evening moon to the moon at dawn just past mid-month, people lining up along the river in platforms drinking sake and feasting as they party all night long. Woman wrapped in showy sashes, men sporting fashionably long coats, with monks and old folks intermingling, even apprentices to coopers and blacksmiths, everyone carefree and leisurely, singing up a storm. Yes indeed, life in the capital!

river breeze-
wearing pale persimmon robes,
the evening cool

kawakaze ya / usugaki kitaru / yusuzumi
- Bashō 1690


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