Living in Kyoto vs. Returning Home:
Four Basho Linked Verses of Humanity
Translations and commentary by Jeff Robbins
Assisted by Sakata Shoko
Basho’s well-known haiku offer us transcendental visions of nature usually with no human being in the scene — however beyond these nature poems is another, far most vast world: that of his renku or linked verses; here are hundreds and hundreds of portraits of humanity in endless diversity. Basho’s linked verses about women, children, men, friendship, love, and compassion can be resources for sociologists and anthropologists, as well as ordinary folk, to explore and start conversations about humanity. The impersonal world of flowers, insects, birds, snow, and the moon is certainly wonderful – but a different sort of wonder awaits us in meeting our own species in Basho’s vision.
Here are four portions of linked verse: two about living in the large populous city of Kyoto, home to the Emperor but also to an array of more plebian characters; and two about returning from the City to one’s hometown. As always, I use bold-face to emphasize Basho’s words:
Coming down from Court to
street of gossipy neighbors —
“How are blossoms
at the palace?” nun asks
the second nun —
“A butterfly among wireweed!”
all she says, blowing her nose
となりさかしき / 町に下り居る
二の尼に / 近衛の花の / さかりきく
蝶はむぐらに / とばかり鼻かむ
Tonari sakashiki / machi ni kudari-iru
Ni no ama ni / konoe no hana no / sakari kiku
Chou wa mugura ni / to bakari hana kamu
A female imperial attendant took the tonsure upon the death of the emperor she served, and has come down from Court to live in the ordinary bustle of Kyoto streets. When another nun, a friend of hers who still lives at Court, comes to visit her, the first nun asks about the cherry blossoms she used to know and love. Butterfly is of course an image of feminine elegance, whereas the obnoxious climbing weed mugura –having no name in English, we call it “wireweed” — grows wild over anything in its path without the slightest hint of elegance. The second nun exclaims “Imagine you, a person of the Imperial Court, among these lowly gossips” while she chokes up with tears of emotion filling her nasal passages. Here we have a bit of Anthropology, a tiny conversation between two women in 17th century Japan. The common thread running through the three stanzas is the contrast between elegance and vulgarity – the Imperial Court vs. nose-blowing – in this unique city known for elegance yet with its share of vulgarity
In this pair, Basho begins and Yaba follows:
to stand against the flow
living in Kyoto
Again no notice of
daughter’s joyful birth.
算用に / 浮世を立てる / 京住まい
又沙汰なしに / むすめ産
San-you ni / ukiyo o tateru / kyou-zumai
Mata sata nashi ni / musume yorokobu
From the villages where life goes on at a natural pace, young folk migrate to the cities where competition and the high cost of living make life difficult — but more fun than in the village — so they must “calculate” to survive. The term ukiyo o tateru , “to stand against the floating world,” means to endure the forces of transience which can in one night destroy a lifetime achievement. I translate “the flow.” To stand tall with dignity in that raging flood of ephemerality, to not be knocked over by “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,” we must “calculate.” Nowadays Kyoto residents struggle to “stand” against the flood of tourism and modernization for the tourist market.
Many have discussed the peculiar difficulties of Kyoto: Oussouby Sacko says “they try to keep everything a little bit expensive here, to keep the high standard Kyoto image.” Cara Clegg adds that “Due to its location in a basin, the area has bad wind flow, making it especially cold in winter and escpecially hot in summer” and “Buses often run right past their stops without pausing because they’re already filled up with tourists, enraging people trying to get to work or school.” Kaori Shoji says, “Kyoto has always been a snobbish, expensive and unwelcoming kind of place, with surprisingly little in the way of amenities and facilities for the casual traveler.” Alex Kerr says, “After centuries of political intrigue and relentless scrutiny by tea masters, the people of Kyoto have developed the technique of never saying anything.” So in Kyoto today, Basho is right; you gotta “calculate.”
Yaba takes Basho’s thought into an entirely different realm: city people, in their endless calculations, lack reverence for human life — they send out birth notices for boys, but girls are not worth mentioning. Boys bring wealth to the family; girls marry out, exporting wealth to another family. In many places in Asia, by longstanding habit only boys are cherished, and girls considered a liability. One of the ways Japan kept her population constant for 200 years was by strangling unwanted newborns, usually the females. And so “no notice of a girl’s birth” could have a sinister meaning. Yet even if the parents are devoted to her care and the baby girl in fine health and mood, the failure of her parents to send out notice of her birth suggests a subtle marginalization of the female.
Basho, however, in his tanka SPRING PASSES BY, blesses the newborn girl, giving full notice to her. In his letters to his oldest friend Ensui about Ensui’s newborn granddaughter, Basho clearly, more clearly than any male writer, says “cherish the newborn female.” Yaba also does something very pro-female here; he gives the character 産 for “birth” (which ordinarily reads as umu or san) the life-affirming reading yorokobu, “to be joyful,” a clear expression of Yaba’s positive feelings for the birth of a musume.
The point, the learning and the fun, of linked verse is to discover how ‘not sending out birth notices for girls’ relates to the ‘difficulty of getting through life in the Capital.” Getting inside the mind of Yaba as he responds to Basho’s lead. Above are the ways I have found to connect these two stanzas. You, dear reader, find your own ways.
A young woman goes to the Big City to live, work, and marry. Pregnant, she returns to her natal home where her mother can care for her before and during birth, then help out with the newborn.
Sister from the Capital
here to have her baby
at back door she lights
都の妹が / 子をうみに来る
機たたむ / 妻戸に花の / 香を焼きて
Miyako no imo ga / ko o umi ni kuru
hata tatamu / tsumado ni hana no / ko o yakite
Basho fulfills the theme of pregnancy with specific actions of this woman: the ordinary but eternal work of women to keep children warm and house fragrant (while the average guy really does not care about how a place smells). She has finished weaving the length of fabric she needs to make one robe, so she folds the material and places it down. Then she goes to the back door (in Japanese the tsumado or “wife door,” the door between the kitchen and the back yard which the women of the house pass through a hundred times a day while the husband never does) with the 17th century Japanese equivalent to a lighter, to ignite incense and spread sweet fragrance throughout the farm kitchen. Weaving fabric for baby clothes, making the house smell good, she generates positive energy for the new life. How Basho must have watched his mother and four sisters – one older and three younger — to absorb their consciousness.
Basho sees the pregnant woman in the place she herself was born, prepare her body and spirit for delivery through physical work, moving her body back and forth, up and down, around her swollen belly. Dr. Yoshimura Takashi, whose birth center near Nagoya has delivered babies since 1961, says that the strength and flexibility Edo-era women gained from everyday physical work is what makes childbirth easy: he says, “When the muscles are strong and flexible, the baby just slides out.” Behind the modern clinic in the middle of Okazaki City is an open area with old-fashioned thatched-roof house, sunken hearth, and wood-burning cook stove. Expectant mothers gather here to do Yoga in the form of work: chopping and sawing wood, polishing walls, making and tending fires – repeatedly squatting and rising to stretch the pelvic muscles – then sit at the hearth, eating rice and vegetables, sharing their experiences of pregnancy. Reading Basho’s take on a stanza about pregnancy, I feel that he would approve of Dr. Yoshimura’s method – and when I showed Basho’s verse and this sentence to him, I saw tears in his eyes.
Next is a household in which the husband has been adopted into the bride’s family, so the young man has to struggle for dominance with the Father who has been here for thirty years.
Son-in-law and Father
greeting to make-up —
in her home village
close to tears
Things from lacquered box
taken out and put back
むこと舅の / なおる挨拶
御局の / 里下して / 涙ぐみ
ぬつたはこより / 物のだし入れ
Muko to shutome / naoru aisatsu
o-tsubone no / sato kudari shite / namida-gumi
nutta hako yori / mono no dashi ire
For some time now, the two men have not been very cordial to each other. This morning they greet each other with words that begin to repair their relationship. With her sister and husband taking over the household, a second daughter has gone to the provincial castle to serve in a daimyo’s household. On her day off, she returns to her native home where her joy at seeing her father and brother-in-law starting to get along brings tears to her eyes. From the fancy lacquered box, she takes out things that remind her of her family members, looks at them, and returns them to the box. (Nowadays these would be photographs in a box, album, or smartphone.) Once we apply the feelings in the verse to our own personal experience of family, the verse becomes all the most important to us.
The two stanzas not-by-Basho are each brilliant and personal, setting the stage with the web of relationships in a family; these are like the “assists” in basketball. Basho then dunks it in with his vision of female activity and female memories. Basho’s follower Kyoriku tells us Basho spoke some words which could capsize a few boats in Japanese literature if they became known:
Many of my followers write haiku equal to mine,
however in renku is the bone marrow of this old man.
Haiku wa monjin no naka, yo ni otoranu ku suru hito oushi.
Haikai (renku) ni oite wa rourou ga kotzui
Basho is over-generalizing here. SOME of his haiku truly shine, however the humanity he revealed by linking his mind with another mind could light up the world.
We have traveled through four sequences of anthropology — meeting older women who are nuns, harried new parents, a pregnant woman, an unmarried sister and her family; we have seen women conversing, crying and getting tears in nasal passage, blowing nose, parents calculating, women at work, in-laws’ wary greetings, and women reminiscing and going through the physical processes of almost crying. In particular in Basho’s first, third, and fourth stanzas, note the lively active verbs describing specific concrete actions of women – speaking, blowing her nose, folding fabric neatly, giving fire to incense, taking out and putting back. We see not one word of abstract philosophy or religious concept. All is specific, concrete, and active – so different from the ascetic and impersonal reputation which has formed around Basho.
Multiply the four Basho stanzas in this article by 59, to get the number of Basho stanzas in my Basho4Now trilogy. These 236 stanzas, which I have selected for their emphasis on humanity, are a mere 14% of the 1700 stanzas Basho wrote in 30 years. Furthermore the Basho stanzas are about one-sixth of all the stanzas by all the poets together in 300 sequences – in some sequences only a few stanzas are by Basho; others have just two poets so every other stanza is Basho; sometimes Basho wrote two stanzas in succession. The Complete Basho Renku Anthology has ten volumes, each over 300 pages; each page has an average three stanzas along with commentaries to every single link. So over 3000 pages and 10,000 stanzas, 1700 by Basho. Such is the vastness of that galaxy of Basho’s linked verse – all of it (with exceptions discussed below) unknown to the world
Of the one thousand haiku Basho wrote, 125 were actually used to begin a renku sequence; some of these have become famous without the stanzas that followed. Aside from these sequence-openers, none of Basho’s linked verse appears in books on Basho haiku in English or in Japanese. A few books of literary criticism include full 36-stanza sequences with no emphasis on Basho’s stanzas, and they get lost among the ever-changing imagery. Even in Japan a select few scholars do study renku, while the average person on the street knows three or four Basho haiku — the poems they were forced to learn in high school — but not even one of his renku visions.
No wonder Basho is thought of as “impersonal, detached, objective” when his many warm, deeply personal, and human-involved works – his linked verses and his letters — are unknown worldwide. To spread awareness of these remarkable resources for human self-understanding is my mission.
I request your assistance in getting out the word on the warm affectionate Basho who wrote hundreds of poems about women and children, about friendship, love, and compassion; hundreds of Basho works unknown to all, yet the most pro-female, child-centered, and life-affirming works in old-time literature.
Feedback will be greatly appreciated.