Japanese Poetry

Shut up among the solitary peaks,
I sadly contemplate the driving sleet outside.
A monkey’s cry echoes through the dark hills,
A frigid stream murmurs below;
And the light by the window looks frozen solid.
My ink stone, too, is ice-cold.
No sleep tonight, I’ll write poems,
Warming the brush with my breath.

There is so much to explore when it comes to Japanese poetry.

This is a brief introduction to two of my favorite Haiku poets; Basho and Ryokan.

“Go to the pine if you want to learn about the pine, or the bamboo if you want to learn about the
bamboo. And in doing so, you must leave your subjective preoccupation with yourself. Your
poetry issues of its own accord when you and the object have become one – when you have
plunged deep enough into the object to see something like a hidden glimmering there. However
well-phrased your poetry may be, if the object and yourself are separate – then your poetry is
not true poetry but a semblance of the real thing.”

When you know that my poems are not poems
Then we can speak of poetry!

Ryokan never published a collection of verse while he was alive. His practice consisted of sitting in zazen meditation, walking in the woods, playing with children, making his daily begging rounds, reading and writing poetry, doing calligraphy, and on occasion drinking wine with friends.

Ryokan later dubbed himself Taigu, or ‘Great Fool,’ but this title had a special meaning. A Zen master who taught the young Ryokan described him this way: ‘Ryokan looks like a fool, but his way of life is an entirely emancipated one. He lives on playing, so to say, with his destiny, liberating himself from every kind of fetter.’ He went on to describe his disciple’s simple life: ‘In the morning he wanders out of his hut and goes God knows where and in the evening loiters around somewhere. For fame he cares nothing. Men’s cunning ways he puts out of the question.’ His freewheeling spirit had much in common with the American writer Henry David Thoreau’s. Ryokan’s life was an affirmation of alternate values and a rebuke to the hypocrisy and rigid values found in Japanese Zen monasteries and in society at large.

His ‘foolishness’ belongs in a Taoist-Buddhist context as an inversion of social norms. Ryokan declares the Way of the Fool in his poem ‘No Mind’:

With no mind, flowers lure the
With no mind, the butterfly visits
the blossoms.
Yet when flowers bloom, the butterfly
When the butterfly comes, the
flowers bloom

‘No mind,’ or mushin, means not to cling or to strive, and when it is joined with mujo, or acceptance of life’s impermanence, we have the greatness of the fool.

To achieve this original or beginner’s mind, Ryokan sought the company of children, kept his humble begging rounds, accepted his everyday life, and recorded it all in his authentic poems. Dropping whatever he was doing, he would turn to join the children’s games of tag and blindman’s buff, hide-and-seek, and ‘grass fights.’ He was once caught playing marbles with a geisha and is said never to have refused a game of Go. He relished playing dead for the children, who would bury him in leaves, and he would spend the day picking flowers with them, forgetting his begging rounds.

“Submit to nature, return to nature,” wrote the seventeenth-century Japanese poet Matsuo Basho, thus capturing the beauty and simplicity of the haiku—a seventeen-syllable poem traditionally depicting a fleeting moment of a given season. The same can be said of the haiku’s more visual cousin, the haiga, which unites a haiku poem, written in calligraphy, with a simple painting. Some of the early masters of this art were Morikawa Kyoroku, Sakaki Hyakusen, Takebe Socho, and Yosa Buson. In the latter part of his career, Basho practiced haiga as well.

Haiga paintings, like the haikus accompanying them, are usually restrained, with minimal ink brush strokes and light color. In his book, Haiku Painting, Leon Zolbrod writes that haiga paintings are characterized by “free and flowing line work and elimination of unnecessary detail.” Zolbrod further states that the paintings often have “a light or frivolous touch suggestive of irony or amusement, even when the subject of the painting is serious.” Susumi Takiguchi, founder of the World Haiku Club, concurs that simplicity and irony are quintessential traits of the traditional haiga. In his article, “A Brush With Poetry,” in the World Haiku Review, he writes, “haiga is unromantic, down to earth (unpretentious) and humorous, dealing with unremarkable, day-to-day subjects and objects.” Haiga’s etymology confirms this: “Hai” means comic and “Ga” means painting.

While the haiku and the painting in a haiga share the same space, they are meant to complement, and not explain, one another. In fact, in some cases the haiku and the painting have nothing to do with one another, because, explains Takiguchi, “if the painting and haiku are [similar], it would mean that one has been added because the other is not adequate.” This would not only be redundant, he says, but could even be perceived as rude.

The third element of haiga—calligraphy—determines the look of the poem on the page and communicates its essence. Good calligraphy, explains Takiguchi, makes use of “bokashi (wash-shading), sae (smooth lines), nijimi (run) or kasure (broken or glazed line),” all of which require mastery from the calligrapher and a trained eye from the reader and viewer.

Haiga was traditionally produced in a variety of formats, including hanging scrolls, hand scrolls, folding screens, and fans. Today, in Japan, it is commonly produced on handmade paper (known asshikishi or tanzaku). “Modern haiga” allows the use of photography, as well as digital or graphic images.

Image: “Banana tree and gate to the banana tree hut,” Matsuo Basho (1644-94), Idemitsu Museum of Art

To explore more Japanese poetry forms go to https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Japanese_poetry#Japanese_poetry_forms