Thursday, November 17, 2005

Buson and Chinese Poetry

Now I'm reading a book called Buson to kanshi (Buson and Chinese poetry); it's by Narushima Yukio, published by Kashinsha in 2003. The book is pretty focused, I have to say; it's more or less a list of Chinese poets whose verse Buson drew on in his haikai, with the relevant poems included and discussed. I am starting with the afterword, because I usually find afterwords and prefaces more interesting than the actual specifics (unless I want to know more about a particular specific, in which case of course it becomes interesting).

Narushima starts his discussion by quoting from Buson's Preface to Shundei kushû. Here's the bit; it's my translation. I'm going to include a little more of it than Narushima does, so it makes sense. In order to follow it, you have to know that "zoku" means "vulgarity, ordinariness" etc. "Rizoku" is getting away from zoku. Shôha is Buson's friend and disciple; the place he lived, Shundei-sha, was his second house:

I went to visit Shundei-sha Shôha at his second house in the west of Kyoto. Shôha asked me a question about haikai. I answered, "Haikai is that which has as its ideal the use of zokugo, yet transcends zoku. To transcend zoku yet make use of zoku, the principle of rizoku, is most difficult. It is the thing that So-and-So Zen master spoke of: 'Listen to the sound of the Single Hand,' in other words haikai zen, the principle of rizoku." Through this, Shôha understood immediately.

He then continued his questions. "Although the essence of your teaching must be profound, is there not some method of thought that I could put into use, by which one might seek this by oneself? Indeed, is there not some shortcut, by which one might, without making a distinction between Other and Self, identify with nature and transcend zoku?" I answered, "Yes, the study of Chinese poetry. You have been studying Chinese poetry for years. Do not seek for another way." Doubtful, Shôha made so bold as to ask, "But Chinese poetry and haikai are different in tenor. Setting aside haikai, and studying Chinese poetry instead, is that not more like a detour?"

I answered, "Painters have the theory of 'Avoiding zoku:' 'To avoid the zoku in painting, there is no other way but to read many texts, that is to say, both books and scrolls, which causes the qi to rise, as commercialism and vulgarity cause qi to fall. The student should be careful about this.' To avoid zoku in painting as well, they caused their students to put down the brush and read books. Less possible still is it to differentiate Chinese poetry and haikai." With that, Shôha understood.

So, a bit of faux Zen gibberish from Mister Buson, but this is maybe the most frequently-quoted passage of anything in his entire oeuvre. There's a hell of a lot going on here.

I'll keep my comments now, though, to what interests Narushima. That is, not surprisingly, is the identification of haikai and Chinese poetry. He points out that in the passage that begins "I answered," Buson is alluding to the famous Mustard Seed Garden Manual of Painting, perhaps the most influential (Chinese) painting treatise that ever made it to Japan. I am not sure it was received in China, but my guess is that it was very influential there also.

(Remind me that I want to do some follow up on that. Narushima mentions something about it in the context of Ogyu Sorai's disciple and Tokugawa Yoshimune. Seems very interesting. He also points out that Ike no Taiga was quite fond of this book.)

What, asks Narushima, did Buson learn from Chinese poetry? Two things, he says, in some sentences that are going to be devilishly difficult to translate but I'll take a crack at it anyway:

One of these is the world of Chinese verse as the poetic ("poesie") and the other is language as a means of expression. It may be better to say the fascination of language. Either way this was not only something where, measured on the basis of how much it broadened and deepened the extent Buson's own poetic artistry, could not be done without, but something that played an important role in polishing his poetic spirit so that he achieved a greater level of mastery and established a more colorful verse style.


What Buson learned from the work of these these foreign poets was none other than the fact that haikai (shi=poetry) is not something that simply depicts the things of reality, but is rather something that, stirring the wings of imagination into flight, causes the poetic spirit to journey in limitless world of the fictive.

Goodness. Perhaps it doesn't really sound so overheated in the original.

He cites some verses here, which I will leave you with today:

willow leaves, fallen
clear stream, withered
stones, here and there

yanagi chiri shimizu kare ishi tokoro dokoro

I'm feeling melancholy
so strike the fulling block--
but stop it, now

uki ware ni kinuta ute ima wa yamine

A fulling block was used to soften cloth, and hearing its sound on an autumn evening was evocative of sorrow. Fulling blocks were archaic in Buson's time, but continued to be mentioned in poetry. Here is a picture of a character in a Noh play using one. In Buson's verse, the speaker doesn't want to overdo it.

plowing the fields
without moving
the clouds disappear

hatake utsu ya ugokanu kumo naku narinu