Saturday, December 24, 2005

Island of Light; More Buson + Chinese Poetry

Island of Light

It's Christmas Eve.

Writing to you from a quiet, shining place surrounded by a distant sea. The clouds are very thin today, faintly moving across pale icy blue. Bare branches of trees reach out to the sky absently, holding their lives still in winter sleep.


More Buson + Chinese Poetry

What was the relationship between haikai and kanshi?

The Japanese wrote poetry in Chinese for centuries, more or less. The form experienced a revival in the 17th century as part of the emergence of cultural discourse related to the figure of the bunjin or literatus. One of the people most famously associated with this development was the scholar, teacher, and poet Ogyû Sorai (1666-1728), whose teachings emphasized the actual production of Chinese poetry in addition to reading and interpreting the work of classical Chinese poets.

This was contemporaneous with the development of haikai. In some ways haikai might seem unrelated to kanshi, because it was written in Japanese and its metrical structure was very different from those in Chinese poetry. But haikai did have many things in common with kanshi, most importantly perhaps the fact that many of the people who wrote haikai also wrote kanshi, and emulated the bunjin lifestyle.

One conspicuous instance of the close relationship between kanshi and haikai was the emergence of the kanshibunchô, of the middle of the 17th century, a literary, elevated style that drew on kanshi for its models. This was most closely associated with the Danrin school of haikai, but its most well-known proponent was Matsuo Bashô himself, who composed in this style during his early years. The following Bashô hokku is a good example. It opens with a headnote in Chinese, a quote from the Tang poet Li Bo (701-762), "In times of sorrow, one learns reverence for wine. In times of poverty, one realizes the sacredness of pennies:"

under the blossoms, the floating world
my sake is white
my rice is black

hana ni ukiyo waga sake shiroku meshi kuroshi

The speaker is poor, as his sake is milky with lees and his rice has not been adequately milled. The awareness of his poverty causes him to have a keener appreciation of cherry blossoms as emblematic of the sadness of life even as he sits down to his meal. While the sentiment of the verse is not unusual in Japanese poetry, its language is quite striking. Even without the Chinese headnote, its parallel structure (white sake, black rice) recalls kanshi. It is also far more blunt and intellectual than the oblique, highly nuanced verse at which Bashô excelled in his later years: the meaning of the poem is expressed with little ambiguity, and it offers the reader the challenge of figuring out the source of headnote and the delight of the poet's cleverness in reworking it into this context.