Unity and Simplicity: Basho’s Poetics

I’ve started reading Nobuyuki Yuasa’s translation of Basho’s travel sketches, including The Narrow Road to the Deep North. I was going to wait to make a post about it until I finished, but I got so excited about the following quotes from and about Basho regarding writing poetry (which can be expanded to writing in general) that I couldn’t help myself:

“Go to the pine if you want to learn about the pine, or to the bamboo if you want to learn about the bamboo. And in doing so, you must leave your subjective preoccupation with yourself. Otherwise you impose yourself on the object and do not learn. 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 your feeling is not natural — if the object and yourself are separate — then your poetry is not true poetry but merely your subjective counterfeit.” (Basho)

In his collection of critical essays entitled Kuzu no Matsubara, Shiko (one of Basho’s disciples) included commentary on Basho’s famous poem:

Breaking the silence
Of an ancient pond,
A frog jumped into water —
A deep resonance.

Of the poem’s creation, Shiko wrote:

“This poem was written by our master on a spring day. He was sitting in his riverside house in Edo, bending his ears to the soft cooing of a pigeon in the quiet rain. There was a mild wind in the air, and one or two petals of cherry blossom were falling gently to the ground. It was the kind of day you often have in late March — so perfect that you want it to last for ever [sic]. Now and then in the garden was heard the sound of frogs jumping into the water. Our master was deeply immersed in meditation, but finally he came out with the second half of the poem… One of the disciples sitting with him immediately suggested for the first half of the poem,

Amidst the flowers
Of the yellow rose.

Our master thought for a while, but finally he decided on

Breaking the silence
Of an ancient pond.

The disciple’s suggestion is admittedly picturesque and beautiful but our master’s choice, being simpler, contains more truth in it. It is only he who has dug deep into the mystery of the universe that can choose a phrase like this.”

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