New Year Basho
Eight Basho haiku, four linked verses,
two Basho letters, and one haibun
Selection, translation, and commentary by Jeff Robbins
Words of Basho appear in bold face
For the New Year of 2017 and Writers in Kyoto, I have assembled a collection of Basho works on the human experience of this season. Basho writes of Hope emerging after a long darkness, of the Sun Goddess Amaterasu rising from the horizon, and of the things people do at New Years: getting up early to see the first sunrise, visiting shrines, offering good wishes, eating special foods, playing customary games, and enjoying the first signs of spring – all within the still very cold weather.
New Year in traditional Japan was by the lunar calendar in which the 1st day of the First Moon occurs on average in early February by the Western calendar (in 2017, however, the lunar New Year is Jan. 28th). Nowadays, of course, the Japanese celebrate the New Year on January 1st, but this is too early in the year for many traditional New Year experiences. For instance, the call of the uguisu or bush warbler is suitable for a New Year poem because the bird does actually first sing out in the freezing weather of February, but not on the first of January. A poem which mentions a Japanese New Year custom is a New Year poem, even without the words “New Year,” and contains the February hope for a new year and a new spring. Zoni — a vegetable stew containing mochi, rice cakes made from glutinous rice, traditionally eaten in the New Year season –belongs to this season. Poems about mochi may be another season, however if the mochi is combined with another February experience, the New Year reference is clear.
poops on the rice cake
Mochi rice cakes are eaten throughout the New Year which in Japan lasts up to three weeks. As the days pass, with no refrigerators or plastic wrap, the leftovers get moldy – however dried in the sunshine, the mold can be wiped off and the mochi eaten – but not if it had bird poop on it. Usually we hear the lovely song of the bush warbler, but Basho notices something else about the bird. Scholar Kon Eizo says this verse is a “crystallization” of Lightness; it gives a definite form to Basho’s ideal: nothing poetic or philosophic, romantic or tragic, simply life as is, with a touch of humor, to be interesting. Small children will like any verse with pee or poop in it, so this should be a favorite.
Basho began the year 1683 — on February 5th, with this haiku
New Year’s Day –
thinking of a lonely
I believe he is “thinking of” the autumn nightfall two and a quarter years earlier when he wrote
where a crow has settled
The branch lifeless, the crow black and forbidding, the nightfall cold and dreary, accumulate to form sabi, or wabi-sabi, which the Japan Encyclopedia defines as “a medieval aesthetic combing elements of old age, loneliness, resignation, and tranquility.” This poem accompanied some profound realization of human loneliness – we might call it an existential crisis – which led to Basho to give up his ordinary life in society to be a wandering poet; for the next 18 months, he studied/practiced Zen Buddhism, and wrote numerous heavy, desolate poems reminiscent of Chinese Zen recluse poetry. Scholars claim the heaviness of WITHERED BRANCH is characteristic of Basho. In reality, however, sabi only characterizes the two years from late autumn 1680 through winter of 1681 and into 1682. From 1683, Basho begins to lighten up, and the majority of his works, especially his linked verses, shine with Lightness: here in 1689:
New Year’s Day –
sun on every field
At New Year’s rice fields are barren expanses of mud and frost with row after row of cut-off stubble; the Sun (Goddess) weak and cold yet shining with the promise of better things to come – so we love Her.
In a Shinto ritual, ice from winter is preserved in an ice house to last until midsummer, and that spirit of perseverance offered to the kamisama. As the Japanese frequently advise each other, gambatte, “persevere, hang in there, maintain your strength.” Basho begins this renku stanza pair in the hot season with a dedication to that last bit of ice which has persevered for six months:
So it will not melt
this ice we dedicate
New Year’s dawn
the morning sun a faint
Issho switches from mid-summer to freezing cold New Year’s daybreak; just before we see the first bit of Sun-circle, there is a glimmer on the horizon. The joy of reading renku occurs when we expand our minds to see the affinity between Sun rising into the sky and the thermodynamics of ice melting. The stanza-pair is a poetic representation of the yin-yang symbol. Yin is dark and cold; Yang light and hot. The bit of ice in the midsummer heat is the spot of Yin in the field of Yang; the sun rising in midwinter is the bit of bright heat in the cold dark field. The two fields with opposing spots together form the cycle of the year, of reality, of consciousness.
The phrase hana no haru, “flowery spring,” belongs to the New Year. To accommodate those of us who cannot imagine flowers at New Year, I translate “glory of spring”:
There is a man
covered by a straw mat
glory of spring
A beggar sleeps under a straw mat in the freezing cold New Year’s weather. This man who most people ignore or wish to ignore, has an identity, a human dignity, within the glory of spring. If not for fortune, I could be him.
Socks taken off to dry
air shimmers from wall
At New Year
we take along our
Though meaning we hide
they stand and listen
Tabi nuede hosu / kabe no kagerou
Nentou ni / chiisaki yatsura / tomo sasete
Kakusu tayori o / tachi-nagara kiku
Whose socks are these? And why did they get wet? Basho explains. On New Year’s Day we get dressed up to visit shrines and friends and people important in our lives – so we adults have a lot to talk about. We brought the kids along with us, but really they did not want to go. (Ciisaki yatsura: yatsura is the plural form of yatsu, a slang word meaning, for an adult, “guy” or “jerk” or even “asshole,” although chiisaki, ‘tiny,” makes them small and cute. We told them to keep their cloths clean, but somehow their socks got sweaty. I hang the socks on the garden wall in the New Year’s sunshine; moisture and odor from them rises to form shimmers in the air.
Bokusetsu takes Basho’s thought off into a different direction; the socks and wall disappear. As we walk about and talk to relatives, friends, and people important to us, a lot of what we say is not appropriate for children to know, so we hide our meaning in a maze of adult words with references to people and things they know not; the Complete Renku Anthology says “we speak rapidly and respond with ‘uh huh’” – but how much do these highly attentive language sponges pick up? Adults think that language comprehension requires knowledge of each word’s individual meaning, but children get the meaning from context. The link between the two stanzas leads us into the nature of language, concentration, and intelligence.
Japanese for 20 centuries at New Years have played hanetsuku, non-competitive badminton in which the purpose is to volley as long as possible. The following haiku was written in 1702 by a seven- year-old girl, Haru, from Osaka, the great mercantile capital of Japan, where everyone is a merchant. Her daddy is busy all year long. Rarely does he spend any time with her. She loves New Year’s because he takes three whole days off from work, and will play lots of badminton with her. Near the end of the year, when he comes in to say goodnight to her, Haru asks in her most charming voice:
How many times
must I sleep? Daddy…?
We feel her love for Daddy, her patient though eager waiting for him to spend time with her at New Years. Haru-chan teaches us that seven-year-old girls 300 years ago thought and felt this way. Where else is there such a record of a small child’s consciousness from so long ago?
On New Year’s Eve, reluctant for the year to pass,
I drank deep into the night, then overslept
On second day
I shall not blunder,
glory of spring
He was “supposed” to get up early to see the first sunrise, but… The bed was so warm and the dawn so cold. He promises himself he will do better tomorrow. What do you think? Will he “blunder” tomorrow too? There’s enough “glory of spring” at noon.
Spring arrives late in
sacred Nachi Mountains,
New Year’s Arrow:
all the young sons try
to shoot the best
The Nachi mountains near Kumano in Wakayama-ken are famous for warrior disciplines such as archery in weather so cold one can barely feel fingertips on the bowstring. Archery competitions are a New Year’s ritual, and for boys coming of age, a manhood ritual. (Sort of like ‘who can pee the furthest?’) In the link, we may discover the nature of puberty. Sexuality is a type of “heat” which children lack, so they are winter. New Year (in February) is like puberty, when some parts of the body first feel that heat while other parts are still cold and dormant. We look forward to Spring, the season of romance, when that heat fills the body, but beware of things getting too hot in summer.
Here is a trio from a renku Basho and his followers wrote on the journey to the Deep North:
From last year’s battle
bones bleached white
On her day off
the wife escorted home
in falling rain
The fragrance of mist
as she washes her hair
Many months have passed since the great battle, and the bones of warriors picked clean by scavengers and exposed to rain, snow, dew, and wind, lay white on the ground. Basho jumps from “last year” to a New Year scene. Servants were given a day off on the 16th day of the First Moon. A married woman who works as a servant walks back to her native home. She knew she would have to pass the spooky old battlefield, and could not do so alone, especially in the gloomy February rain, so someone walks with her to alleviate her fear. The next poet jumps from “falling rain” at New Years to the mists common in spring. The first thing she does upon arrival at her parent’s house is wash the bad vibes from her hair – the hair which contains her life-force. We breathe in that smell of long thick wet hair – as in beauty parlors – like the smell of mist.
From the 17th century Japanese commoner children went to private schools known as terakoya. Girls studied homemaking skills, arts, and music, and could read and write in the phonetic kana alphabets. Boys learned to read and write the thousands of Chinese characters used in formal Japanese. They practiced with copybooks such as Tenkin Orai, a series of letters appropriate to each month, giving students a wide range of content to copy, so they would learn how to understand and use all those characters effectively.
Your copy books –
from whose satchel shall
the year spring?
On the first day of school after New Year’s break, also the start of Spring, a teacher tells the students to take out Teikin Orai and practice writing New Year’s greetings (similar to the one billion nenga-jo 120 million Japanese send out at the end of the year to arrive on New Year’s morning). It would be clearer for the teacher to ask “from whose satchel shall the best penmanship spring?” or even clearer, “who can do the best writing?” But this teacher’s question is more interesting to the children, and they play along with the game, and shout “Me! Me! From my satchel the year shall spring!” So they all work hard, as if playing a competitive game, to get better. Instead of simply telling the students what to do, this teacher adds interest to the learning process. Both Basho’s father and his older brother taught calligraphy to neighborhood children to supplement their farm income; this haiku shows he knew how to motive children to learn.
New Year’s Day:
Year after year
worn by a monkey
a monkey’s mask
Haiku scholar Kon Eizo says, “At a New Year’s performance, a monkey’s mask worn by a monkey changes nothing – so we repeat the same foolishness each year.”
For the New Year of 1693 Basho received a letter from his childhood and lifelong friend Ensui with a haiku telling of the birth of Ensui’s first grandchild, a girl:
New Year’s Day
‘still an edge emerging’
“An edge emerging” is the first bit of white petal seen as a flower bud starts to open, but also is a phrase in the Tale of Genji describing Genji’s baby daughter, the Akashi Princess. Ensui applied this image, both natural and literary, to his infant granddaughter emerging from the womb, and also to the New Year emerging from winter. For the next New Year, 1694, Basho sent a letter to his old friend:
In the spring of last year the scent of plum blossoms I heard of
‘still an edge emerging,’ this year gradually shall become fragrant
and colorful, so I guess how much you love her.
The whole tree will become gorgeous, as the infant who can now stand by herself goes out into the world. Basho links his heart with Ensui’s, feeling Ensui’s love for his granddaughter in his own chest.
Having taken one step past half a century pickled radish
shall penetrate my teeth, and I may learn to appreciate
the mochi in New Year’s vegetable soup, though I have
come to wonder if the remnant of years is approaching.
By the Japanese count, Basho is 51, entering his second half century. The sharp flavor in daikon pickles penetrates his teeth old and needing much dental work. Mochi itself has no distinct flavor to arouse young people; they like it mixed with other flavors. Only old patient taste buds enjoy it for its subtle flavor Also this New Year, Basho in Edo wrote to his samurai friend Kyokusui in Zeze beside Lake Biwa: he mentions the previous New Year when Kyokusui was in Edo and came to visit Basho:
Thank you for your New Year’s letter. I treasure the knowledge
that your wife and children welcome the New Year without misfortune.
Last year when you were in this province, we encountered the new spring together.
Enjoying the ‘first laugh’ was a novel experience. This year alone I yearn for you.
Japanese custom cherishes various firsts-of-the-New-Year: the first dream, first sunrise, first hawk sighting: the “first laugh” is not one of these, but Basho and Kyokusui invent a new custom. We may follow them in cherishing and remembering our year’s first laugh.
That was a meager vegetable-mochi soup I served you.
This year at your house the uba fed you so much you got sick of it.
Basho managed to cook some zoni for his guest, but is no chef, so the soup was “meager.” Zoni is traditionally eaten throughout the 20 days of the New Year season. Thus by the end of the First Moon, when this letter was written, one might be tired of zoni. We see that the uba— an old woman servant who probably was Kyokosui’s wet nurse—likes to overfeed her baby. Basho is kidding his friend.
The samurai Ranran, one of the first in Edo to follow Basho, continued his support for 19 years. He died in 1693 in his forties. From Basho’s essay Grief for Matsukura Ranran.
I remember a New Years past, Ranran holding hands
with a small boy came to my door of weeds and said
it would be good if I gave the lad a name.
A samurai dad walks holding hands with his little son. (Say what?!) Maybe some samurai were not so strict and ‘manly’ as we imagine today. Basho replaced Ranran’s son’s infant name with one more suitable for an active and intelligent young boy. The little boy in his New Years finery was so handsome that Basho thought of the 3rd century Chinese sage Ojuu famous for his beauty as a small child.
This child was as handsome as a glimpse of the sage Ojuu at age four.
So I picked out the character for ‘juu’ and named him Ranjuu.
Basho “picked out” the character juu from Ojuu, and combined it with the first ‘Ran’ in Ranran, forming a name half from the father and half from a Chinese sage known as a handsome and brilliant child. When Ranran heard the name Basho chose for his son and saw the characters he selected:
The flush of Ranran’s joy, even now, has not left my eyes.
I have written an article containing the many, many occurrences in Basho works of the words yorokobi (joy) or yorokobu (to enjoy). Remembering this feeling in Basho, I hope your 2017 is joyful.
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 few people know, yet I believe the most pro-female, child-centered, and life-affirming works in world literature.
Feedback will be greatly appreciated.