Bamboonery - Part 3

Posted on Sunday, June 26, 2011, under , ,

Some ‘bamboo verse’ by early Japanese women poets:

Let us plant
in a warrior's garden.
May you become bows, may you become arrows
clumps of bamboo
of ten thousand years.                           
Takabatake Shikibu (d.1881)

I wake, with no one around the room is clean.
As always I rub the musk ink, and it sounds swish-swish.
The bamboo, not waiting for the moon in the window,
in light shades, aslant, aslant, emerges through my hand.              
               Ema Saiko (1787-1861; from ‘Breeze Through Bamboo’)

What are you saying?
That we can't meet –
not even for a time
brief as the space between joints
on the reeds of Naniwa?             
Lady Ise (c. 875-938)

as hail falls
on bamboo leaves
rustling, rustling
how can I sleep alone?                          
Izumi Shikibu (c. 970 – ?)

Who might dwell there?
Who has fixed his abode
at the foot of the hill,
with none for neighbour
save a lovely bamboo grove?                  
Abutsu-ni (c. 1222-1283)


The great Basho famously wrote: “Learn of the pine from the pine; learn of the bamboo from the bamboo. And in doing so, you must put your subjective preoccupations to one side. Otherwise you impose yourself on the object and do not learn.” This call to a total immersion in nature — physical, sensual, spiritual — is also a direct allusion to the then prevailing formal rigidity of both renga and haikai, the popular poetic forms whereby groups of people composed linked verse following specific rules and regulations. Rules and regulations — yuck. The ‘preoccupations’ are the synonym for any poet’s straightforward interpretations of nature limited by the detachment, by the absence of what Basho elsewhere calls a ‘wind-swept spirit’ of his poetic persona. The logic of Basho’s message thus goes something like this: break with the current tradition (‘preoccupations’), and develop an independent spirit by embracing/exploring nature to the full and your poetry is on the right path towards originality. Basho: “The first task for each artist is to overcome the barbarian … heart and mind, to become one with nature”. Note Basho’s unusual equations: barbarian mind = subjective, uncultured; close to/one with nature = cultured mind.

In order to experience various aspects of nature one needs to do lots of travelling, preferably on foot. Here is a lovely rendition by Cid Corman of a passage from Basho’s Back Roads to Far Towns:

"Moon & sun are passing figures of countless generations, and years coming or going wanderers too. Drifting life away on a boat or meeting age leading a horse by the mouth, each day is a journey and the journey itself home. Amongst those of old were many that perished upon the journey."

‘The journey itself home’ — I love this line! And here is Basho’s own bamboo-themed haiku (trans. Lucien Stryck):

From moon wreathed
bamboo grove,
cuckoo song.

Basho was a dedicated scholar of the Japanese and Chinese literary classics. He was a follower of the Buddhist monk poet, Saigyo (1118-1190), another extensive traveller, whose waka praised the natural scenery and who happened to believe that all of nature is fully interdependent (sounds very pre-Darwinian). Saigyo’s love of nature was however at direct odds with the restraints of his Buddhist practices, which in turn served as a sort of point of departure in his poetry. Intoxicated by nature, Saigyo would let his verse assume some unexpected, if heretic, overtones. He searches and finds Buddha in the plants, wishing to die under a blossoming cherry tree — a sacrilegious thought; he dares a passionless monkhood, obsessed with the abandonment of desire and earthly attachments, to get ‘saddened’ by the sight of a single snipe flying up into the autumn evening. Saigyo the tireless traveller is constantly open to new experiences, is anxious to ‘go searching for blossoms in directions [he has] never been before’, and is profoundly saddened when a previously marked nature trail has completely disappeared:

In fifth-month rains
no trace of a path
where I can make my way
meadows of bamboo grass
awash in muddy water                           

It seems that among Japanese poets of early times a substantial number were lifelong travellers and nature lovers. Their art was a way of extrapolating truths out of the natural world. But fast forward a few centuries and we find modern poets starting to utilize natural phenomena as symbols and psychological metaphors. Heavily influenced by European nihilistic philosophies — you know, Dostoevsky, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche — Hagiwara Sakutaro (1886–1942) is credited as a major innovator and regarded as the pivotal figure of modern Japanese poetry. Not only did he daringly employ free verse and colloquialisms in his verse but he utilized these in a highly personal and evocative manner. Take the couple of poems, both entitled ‘Bamboo’ from Sakutaro’s first, and still the most popular collection Howling at the Moon (1917)

Something straight growing on the ground,
something sharp, blue, growing on the ground,
piercing the frozen winter,
in morning's empty path where its green leaves glisten,
shedding tears,
shedding the tears,
now repentance over, from above its shoulders,
blurred bamboo roots spreading,
something sharp, blue, growing on the ground.

On the gleaming ground bamboo growing,
blue bamboo growing, 
under the ground bamboo roots growing,
roots gradually tapering off,
from root tips cilia growing,
faintly blurred cilia growing,
faintly trembling.

On the hard ground bamboo growing,
from the ground bamboo sharply growing,
straight, blind, bamboo growing,
at each frozen joint gallantly,
under the blue sky bamboo growing,
bamboo, bamboo, bamboo growing.

            trans. Hiroaki Sato
These poems were placed as the second and third in the collection, building on the image from the first poem entitled ‘Sickly face at the bottom of the ground’, in which ‘a lonely invalid's face emerging/ […] time the winter solstice, from the lonely sickly ground / roots of thin blue bamboo beginning to grow’. What we have here is the essence of suffering itself, the physical and mental terror of the Confucian bamboo-man (see the earlier post Bamboonery 2).

Hagiwara’s bamboo poems, previously published in 1915, included the postscript ‘a poem of purgatory’ after the second poem. Not only that, but this poem carried the following two lines: ‘If I pray, if I pray, growing towards the sky / from the sinner’s shoulder bamboo growing’ — subsequently omitted from Howling at the Moon. So that’s where the ‘repentance over’ comes from! Apparently Hagiwara was a church frequenter and an ardent Bible reader at the time — the purgatory postscript stuck to five other poems in the collection. The fact that Christian concepts creep into his verse suggests one unique artist with an effervescent imagination and a knack for innovation, the ‘essential poet’ if you will. And when it came to the natural world, this was no mean feat as Hagiwara practically had centuries of deeply rooted poetic traditions to contend with.

In his insightful book ‘Principles of Poetry’ Hagiwara mulls over a question — an insulated Japan or a cosmopolitan Japan: ‘[…] If we want to choose the latter, we will have no choice but to carry on the lively spirit of the Meiji Reform and to stress more the vigorous poetical spirit — yearning for things non-existent and beyond reach’. 

You can find more Hagiwara's poems here!

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