Translated by Amy England



Dedicated to the Ogawa Family,

for their many kindnesses












Copyright 2014





Let’s begin with a hedge. Actually, the word that I am referring to, magaki, could mean a bamboo hedge or a rough fence. When it appears in Japanese poetry, it has a marked Chinese flavor. In fact, in this case it belongs to the fifth century Chinese poet T’ao Chien, also known as T’ao Yüan Ming, and in his poem he is picking the eremitic chrysanthemums that grow at its base. As he stands up, he catches sight of the mountains lit by the setting sun, and is transported clean out of the human world.

            I built my hut in a zone of human habitation,

            Yet near me there sounds no noise of horse or coach.

            Would you know how that is possible?

            A heart that is distant creates a wilderness round it.

            I pluck chrysanthemums under the eastern hedge,

            Then gaze long at the distant summer hills.

            The mountain air is fresh at the dusk of day:

            The flying birds two by two return.

            In these things there lies a deep meaning;

            Yet when we would express it, words suddenly fail us (Waley 1971, 83).


            The hedge (or rough-woven fence) is the kind that surrounds a poor, rustic house, the hermitage of a Taoist recluse, or a poor poet-scholar. It attracts the birds, which T’ao Chien also loved (the Chinese character for magaki contains the radicals for ‘bamboo’ and ‘bird’). What the hedge keeps out is all the annoying busy-ness of worldly ambition and official success. T’ao Chien, as an early model of the poet recluse, was appropriately and undividedly contemptuous of these things. His one attempt at a bureaucratic career lasted all of eighty-three days, despite his family’s poverty and his great need for the extra income. China, a far-flung empire with a strong centralized government, was continually posting (or exiling) its soldiers and bureaucrats to distant outposts, and in succumbing to homesickness, T’ao Chien iterated one of the central themes of classical Chinese poetry, the return. He came back to his farm and his poverty and never regretted it, becoming the first “poet of fields and gardens.” His language was plain and clear, his tone meditative, and his palette muted and autumnal.

             He did allow some color into one piece of writing: his prose narrative “The Peach Blossom Fountain,” in which a fisherman finds a river lined with flowering peach trees, ending in a tunnel-like cave that leads to a hidden, utopian place, full of peaceful, contented people who have cut themselves off from the rest of the world—another narrative, like his quick retirement and the sight of the mountains, of escape. Besides this, many central themes of classical Chinese poetry were already prevalent in his work: solitude, living simply, seeking the Tao, traveling through landscape, “intimate” attention to nature, and returning to the country (Payne 1960, 129-131). It is an aristocratic ideal, as it is from that vantage point that its acts of renunciation are put in the strongest relief—including its disengagement from Confucian duty, which would put a high priority on serving the emperor with devotion and skill, in whatever distant post required.

            Next, a gate, this one the entrance to Wang Wei’s country villa at “Wheel Rim River,” in the mountains outside the capital of Chang-an.


            Back Home in the Eminence Mountains


            I left all that, followed a crystalline river

            into thick woodlands, idleness deepening.


            It seems the current is thinking of home,

            and near nightfall, birds return. I pass

            an overgrown town, ancient river-crossing,

            then it’s dusk flooding autumn mountains

            where I’m back home again, far far away,

            closing my gate beneath towering peaks (Wang 2006, 9).


In the eighth century, the T’ang Dynasty, Chinese poetry was having its golden age, crowned by Wang Wei, Li Po, Tu Fu, Po Chü-i. Wang Wei, having achieved early distinction in the bureaucratic examinations, was a successful official in the capital, but whenever possible, he retreated to his mountain villa, surrounded by the first Chinese landscape garden, and this is the half of his life that his poems reflected (although his poetry is less autobiographical than I have been implying here). He was a serious student of Zen (which had by then emerged as a fully developed practice), and the clearest inheritor of the position of poet of “gardens and fields” of T’ao Chien, whom he studied with great care and admiration. Importantly, he also combined poetry writing with painting and playing music. Few of his paintings remain, but those we have show a somber, restrained palette similar to T’ao Chien’s poems, and a great gift, as his translator Hinton says, for conveying emptiness in landscape. This combination of pursuits will later be the mark of the literati artist: as an amateur, who does not need to produce goods for the market, he can afford to practice this art or that as the mood takes him, or in the furthering of his own spiritual enlightenment.

            In one of his poems, Su Shih stands drunk, locked outside of his own gate, in the middle of the night—taking the self deprecation of his predecessors to new lengths. Su Shih lived in the 11th century, in the Sung Dynasty. He moved in and out of favor with the emperor, and in and out of levels of exile, due to his criticism of a reformist faction in the government. He seems to have enjoyed some aspects of exile, including his hut on a hill in Hopei (thus his other name Su Tung-p’o, “Su of the Eastern Slope”). He said: “There is no poet I treasure more than Tao Yüan-ming; he alone pleases me. He wrote few poems: they are plain yet beautiful, rich and yet not ornamented. Tu Fu, Li Po, and all the others are inferior to him.” Of Wang Wei, he said: “In his poetry there is painting, and in his painting poetry” (Payne 1960, 131, 151). Su Shih’s fields of practice included poetry, painting, calligraphy, and pharmacology. He was the forefather of the literati movement—the word in Chinese is wen-ren, ‘literature person,’ later bunjin in Japanese. The literati ideal was the official who lost favor because of his virtues, withdrew from professional life, retreated to the mountains, and read, composed poetry, painted, played music, pursued the Tao, and sipped wine with friends, as pleased him.

            The literati movement was also characterized by a sense of coming late. When the literati painters and poets looked at landscape, they saw not only great spatial distances, but the receding depths of time as well. In his first “Red Cliffs Ode,” Su Shih saw primarily a site of great historical events–General Chou’s burning of Ts’ao Ts’ao’s navy for one, which supposedly had left a scorch mark on the cliffs visible in Su Shih’s day, eight hundred years later. The speaker’s own presence in the poem is far less marked than the giants of the past he remembers, and his main action in the poem is to pour wine to the moon in the river, an offering to the flow of time. Of course, earlier poets had a sense of history—when did they not, in China, have an ancient past to refer to?—but with the literati, this sense of the past acquired a newly layered density, partly because of their posteriority to the brilliance of the T’ang poets. A Su Shih poem Buson might well have read with sympathy is his “Written on a Painting of the Misty Yangtze and Serried Hills, Owned by Wang Ting-kuo”. It describes the landscape, its mountains and streams, waterfall and wine shop, lone boat:


            Where, sir, did you acquire such a painting?

            The composition and details are pleasing and fresh.

            Is there any place like it in all the world?

            I’ll go there directly and buy two large plots of land...

            Peach blossoms in streams do occur in life, 

            Why must those of Wu Ling be immortals?

            Hills and rivers are pure and empty, I stand in the dust,

            There is a path to them but I cannot take it.

            I return the painting to you and heave three sighs,

            My friends in the hills should summon me with “The Return” (Egan 1983, 428-29).


The painter’s skill created, in a way became, a place one could disappear into, like Wu Ling the fisherman disappears into the cave beyond the peach blossoms. The painting even embodies the olong of escape into T’ao Chien’s texts, “The Return” and “The Peach Blossom Fountain”. For Buson, seven hundred years later in the isolation of Tokugawa Japan, classical China would be the escape, a place so removed by time and geography, so confined to representation, that it might as well be a mythic paradise itself. (As for the shadow of this desire: among all these poetic ancestors, Su Shih alone shared Buson’s deep love for the gothic, especially ghost stories.)

            In the twelfth century, the Japanese poet Saigyō, a young man whose relations in the powerful Fujiwara family had secured him a high position as a retainer to the Tokudaiji branch, gave up this position for an unknown reason to become a Buddhist monk. He spent the rest of his life in various monasteries but more often alone in mountain retreats, traveling frequently, and he established an ideal for poetic life that persists in Japan to this day. Like the Chinese literati he treasured the somber palette of an autumn landscape, although his poems put more emphasis on the viewer’s response to the landscape, and associations with it, rather than its physical details. Saigyō’s form is the five line waka, so the more detailed Chinese descriptions of landscape are beyond its scope. Japanese poetry does not often attain Chinese poetry’s great spaces and distances, but it has another sense of spaciousness in its allusions to China itself. Added to the literati sense of lateness is the Japanese sense of being off-center, having acquired a writing system and one of its chief religions from another place (a place which the Chinese and Japanese alike refer to as the “Middle Kingdom”), and this leads to an even more enfolded self-consciousness.


            ato tomete                               Let us seek the past,

            furuki o shitau                        be an age

            yo naranan                             that cherishes the old—

            ima mo arieba                        then our ‘today’ one day

            mukashi narubeshi                 will be someone’s ‘long ago’ (Saigyō 1991, 220)


Watson tells us that we lack knowledge of Saigyō’s attitude toward his poetry–legend has him claiming it as a spiritual exercise and enhancement of religious life, as his travels were, but he is criticized by some for allowing himself this distraction, and the solitude his vocation entailed seems to be difficult for him (ibid., 1-7). It may have been a struggle for him to reconcile the various parts of his life with each other.

            Finally, and most importantly to Buson, there was Bashō. He was born in 1644 or so in a small town southeast of Kyoto, and his father was perhaps a samurai of modest rank. Class is an interesting aspect of Edo period poetry. Beginning in 1603, in the long peace of the Tokugawa shogunate, the military role of samurai became less necessary, and those of lower level with no bureaucratic position might have little to distinguish them from prosperous farmers. The border between the two was in fact a porous one, more so as the increasingly literate merchants and artisans grew in economic and cultural power. Bashō’s life played across the interstices of these new social structures. Bashō entered service under the local feudal lord, and became friends with the lord’s son, who was close to his own age. They seem to have developed together an interest in linked verse, in its more playful haikai form. In 1666, the lord’s son died, and Bashō, like Saigyō before him, was shocked out of the expected pattern for his life. He became a lay monk, and moved to Edo (the new city offered more opportunities for a newcomer than Kyōto). There he began, with some ambivalence, to make a living as a poet, taking students and leading sessions of linked verse writing. Bashō found a new way to deepen haikai’s light playfulness into a Buddhist realization of the transience of things. In his poems, witty puns and everyday images might be juxtaposed with classical Japanese and Chinese poetry, not as parody, but as equal elements. His famous haiku


            kare-eda ni                                                     On a bare branch

            karasu no tomari-keri                                     a crow has alighted...

            aki no kure                                                      autumn nightfall         (Ueda 1992, 57)


is understood to evoke both a realistic scene and a Chinese ink painting in its dark colors and stark imagery, for example. It was under Bashō’s poetic leadership that haiku, or hokku as he would have called it, became a viable independent poetic form. He developed a large following of students, ten of whom would be known as his main disciples, and he was especially close to two or three of them (Bashō wrote in a poem heading, “at my hut there are a peach and cherry tree; for my disciples there are Kikaku and Ransetsu”—2004, 133). These students would go on to found various sub-schools, emphasizing different aspects of Bashō’s aesthetic according to their own tastes.

            Also like Saigyō, he spent years in the dangerous and arduous pastime of traveling around the country, seeking a life closer to the wandering monk with his begging bowl. The travel haibun, or haiku narratives, that resulted from those trips are still considered the models of the genre. Disarmingly modest, well loved by his students, he found his final trip deprived of much of its hardship by the constant, enthusiastic welcome he received from his followers all over the country. His biggest source of unhappiness at the end of his life was that great success and personal obligations made it difficult to keep the quiet, retired habits he had earlier established. He died in 1694 on the outset of another trip, outside of Osaka. The parallels between his life and Saigyō’s were later cemented in the public mind by Goshōan Chōmu’s Illustrated Biography of Master Bashō, which emphasized the similarities between the two men.


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In Japan Buson is considered one of the “three pillars of haiku,” along with Bashō and Issa. In English, however, he has never received the attention that the other two poets have. Perhaps he has made less of an impression here because of a certain chilliness of disposition. Issa, full of intense sympathies, is therefore intensely approachable. Bashō is more difficult, but the pull with him is stronger, because he gets at the heart of things so directly. Buson’s pupil Baitei painted Bashō with his travel gear on, seated, looking directly at the viewer. In keeping with the bunjin style, his face is simple to the point of being a cartoon–large ears, large chin, the eyes mere dots. And there is no reason to think the picture, painted long after Bashō lived, would be particularly accurate. Yet this is the face I consistently attach to Bashō, because it repeats an experience I often have when reading him, of being seen, taken in, looked at, calmly and with welcome, just as he takes in the rest of the world. Buson painted Basho looking up, smiling, delighted at what he saw. The picture of Buson that I most strongly associate with him is a self portrait: he is seated at his table, writing. His writing hand is more clearly delineated than his body, he is so hunched over! and facing indifferently away. Instead of looking at him, we are invited instead to try to see what he sees, to imagine what he is imagining. Clarity of image, discipline of form, enfolding of allusion into allusion—these things give Buson’s haiku their emotional impact. And then, when Buson does turn and make a direct appeal to our emotions, the surprise makes it devastating.

            The following brief account of Buson’s life draws most heavily on Ueda’s definitive biography, The Path of Flowering Thorn: the Life and Poetry of Yosa Buson, with additional material from Cheryl Crowley’s Haiku Poet Yosa Buson and the Bashō Revival, Leon Zolbrod’s essay “Buson’s Poetic Ideals”, and Mark Morris’s essays “Group Portrait with Artist: Yosa Buson and His Patrons” and “Buson and Shiki”, parts 1 and 2. The reader is also directed to the bibliography, to the works by Cahill, French, and Rosenfield for a fuller description of the development of Buson’s painting.

            About Buson’s early life we know very little. He was born in 1716 in the village of Kema, near Osaka; his parentage is obscure. His level of education indicates that he was raised in a well-to-do household. Additionally, in his early days he used the surname Taniguchi, which was restricted to samurai and wealthy farmers. Ueda speculates that his mother may have been a servant from a poor outlying area, an idea supported by his eventual adoption of the surname Yosa, a small rural village in the province of Tango (directly north of Kyoto, on the coast of the Japan Sea). After Buson died, there was some gossip that he had inherited wealth and dissipated it. In the wake of changing patterns of market and distribution due to the increasing size of the large cities, many farmers have a hard time holding on to their property, and Buson may have been the victim of that trend. At any rate, his early adult life did not suggest that he had either property or parents. He moved to Nihonbashi in Edo (searching, like Bashō, for more opportunities for new poets than Kyōto provided). Perhaps he spent some time under the tutelage of Hattori Nankaku, studying Chinese literature, but he ended up as a sort of apprentice to the haiku poet Sōa. He lived at Sōa’s house, known as Yahantei, “the Midnight Pavilion,” in reference to a Chinese poem by Chang Chi (“the Cold Mountain Temple/ Rings its midnight bell, reaching this visitor’s boat,” from “Night Mooring at Maple Bridge,” Yip 2003, 241). Sōa had studied with Ransetsu and Kikaku, both students of Bashō. Buson was therefore connected by his teacher in a direct line to the recognized father of haiku.

            Buson probably did all manner of errands for Sōa in return for his instruction. He attended haiku meetings and formed relationships with many of Sōa’s students and fellow poets. Buson’s scant surviving earliest poems date from 1737 and 1738. In 1742, Sōa died, and Buson’s service was over.  

            He then set out on nearly ten years of travel, shaving his head as a lay monk, perhaps to follow Bashō’s example. His few later remarks indicate his experiences at this time were harsh and difficult—travel in 18th century Japan was not easy. Similar to the route Bashō followed in The Narrow Road to the Interior, Buson made his way up to the northern end of Honshu and back. In 1743, as he was finishing his journey, he began using the name Buson. Like his teacher Sōa, he took his name from classical Chinese poetry; in one set of characters the name means ‘waste village,’ alluding to Tao Chien’s lines from “The Return” (translated by Payne as “I must return. My fields and my orchards/ are invaded by weeds”—1960, 144). The way we usually see Buson’s name written is with an alternative first character, meaning ‘turnip.’ Either way, the name is supposed to convey simple rusticity, like the banana tree in Bashō’s name—the character for turnip, 蕪, is visually similar to one of the characters for banana, 蕉, in Bashō’s name. Buson was by no means a mere extension of Bashō, but he must be read through Bashō, and wrote in almost constant dialogue with Bashō’s poetry. His poetry circle was founded on the principle of restoring haiku to Bashō’s level, and he studied Bashō’s writings all his life.

            In 1751 he settled in Kyoto. During this time he also began to paint seriously. He studied the dominant painting modes of the day, both the native Kanō and Tosa schools and Chinese styles. In 1752, soon after moving to Kyoto, he was traveling again to the southern suburb of Fushimi, perhaps to fulfill painting commissions. In 1754 he moved temporarily to the rural area of Miyazu, sixty miles from Kyoto, staying at a temple at the invitation of the priest Chikukei. In addition to the other painting styles mentioned, Buson began to add to these an interest in Nanga, or Bunjinga, the amateur literati style of disgruntled court officials like Su Shih. It had made its way to Japan with visiting Zen monks in the 14-15th centuries, but didn’t really catch on until the 18th century, when Buson’s friend Hyakusen became one of its first serious Japanese practitioners. It is a rough, spontaneous style, sometimes looking more like doodling than painting, relying on a limited use of color. It is ideal for the art of haiga, or haiku painting, the quick flowing strokes echoing the strokes of the writing. Buson excelled at both calligraphy and haiga, and in important instances his haiga add to our ability to interpret his poems.

            When Buson returned again to Kyoto, he took the surname of Yosa, thus indicating that he had given up lay monk status, and perhaps with it his ideas of emulating Saigyō and Bashō’s wanderings on a permanent basis. In Kyoto, he established himself as a painter, and did little with his writing for about five years. He married a girl from the country named Tomo, whose rustic family he found tiresome. While his attitude to his wife was brusque and unaffectionate, he doted on his daughter Kuno, worrying himself about her marriage, and welcoming her home when it did not turn out to be a happy one.

            In 1766, Sōa’s poetic heir Sōoku died, leaving a vacuum. Buson began leading haiku meetings with the poets of Sōa’s circle, including Taigi and Shōha. The group called themselves the Sankasha, and they wished to revive poetic themes that had become obsolete. They met only twice before Buson left for another two years of travels, painting in Shikoku, but resumed their meetings when he returned in 1768. There followed several intense years of writing and development of Buson’s poetic abilities. The group urged him to take the name of Yahantei and carry on Sōa’s professional position. In 1770 Buson agreed, on the condition that Sōoku’s nephew Kitō, who was still young but had the strongest claim to the title, should become Buson’s pupil and take on the name Yahantei after him. Buson did not have the large circle that Bashō collected—he was much less outgoing, and his painting took away from the more social world of haiku. So, this was the beginning, not only of Buson’s recognized position as a haiku master, but of his longest and closest working relationship. Since Buson’s painting career made such demands on his time, he delegated a large amount of work to Kitō, including keeping records of the poems composed at haiku gatherings, and the editing of various anthologies, so that Kitō deserves an unusually large share of the credit for his master’s success. Kitō was already in his late twenties when his formal relationship with Buson began, and Buson treated him much more like an equal that the typical master-apprentice relationship would imply. At one point, in Buson’s efforts to study linking effects in renga, he and Kitō wrote the kasen “Fuyu-kodachi” (“Winter Trees”) between the two of them, spending weeks on each link to perfect it. Kitō often traveled with Buson, and Buson referred to these travels in his head notes to haiku several times.

            While Buson concentrated more steadily on poetry and the activities of his poetic circle after taking on Yahantei’s title, he continued for the rest of his life to move back and forth from poetry to painting, and there were often periods spanning several years when he wrote little. The aristocratic ideal of the bunjin, even in its most stripped down version, was simply not possible for a man who had to earn his living. Buson compromised by dividing his life. The stratagems and wiliness necessary to get people to pay for his artistic production—this was almost all pushed to the side of painting. There he was busy writing letters, sending off paintings with suggested prices for them, pitting his patrons against each other to encourage them to buy.

            With poetry, he could then afford to write more as he liked. Although his circles of art patrons and poetry students often overlapped, he refused to establish a large poetry following, or to be at home to visit whoever happened by. He often met with his fellow poets at the Sumiya, a brothel in Shimabara, headed by his student Toku Uemon or Tokuya (the building is still there, and houses Buson’s famous “Plum Blossoms,” painted especially for the establishment). The pleasure quarter is too complicated an element of Edo period life to go into here; suffice it to say that prostitution was controlled by regulation and finances rather than outright prohibition. The shame associated with visiting the pleasure quarter was usually due to the ruinous amounts of money that men spent there, rather than anything they did. We know that at sixty, Buson became enamored of a beautiful young geisha named Koito, but on the advice of a friend decided that his age made playing around with geishas undignified, and gave her up. Buson’s expenses from attending parties at such establishments were troublesome to him, and he sometimes had to scramble for painting commissions to make ends meet. The end of the year, a time when bills traditionally had to be settled up, often saw him sending around paintings among his usual buyers. Buson was continually pulled not only between poetry and painting, but between the austerity of the bunjin poet’s life and the brilliant, often costly offerings of Edo period middle-class society in the city.

            1774 marked the eightieth anniversary of Bashō’s death, and from this anniversary onward, Buson’s group began organizing activities that honored Bashō, including the 1776 restoration of the Bashō-an, a hut where Bashō is supposed to have stayed on the grounds of Kompuku-ji Temple outside of Kyōto, then fallen into ruin. They acted out of respect, but they were also staking their claim as Bashō’s true successors (thus their hurry, for fear that they might not live long enough to observe the more traditionally important hundredth anniversary).

            In 1777, Buson began a project of writing ten haiku a day, for a hundred days, to be titled A New Flower Picking. Many of his poems from that year were written for that anthology, but eventually poor health prevented him from sustaining this pace, and the collection turned into a series of prose recollections. He named it after Kikaku’s Flower Picking, which Kikaku wrote as a spiritual exercise as a memorial to his mother. It is one of the few sources we have of the biographical details of Buson’s early travels.

            In 1779, Buson and his followers embarked on the Danrinkai workshop, a series of meetings for the purpose of composing and investigating linked verse. By 1780, the meetings had reverted to the writing of haiku. In 1781 the meetings become sporadic, as Buson’s painting once more became his dominant concern. But he continued to meet with students, to write prefaces to poetry anthologies, and to participate in writing renga and haiku.

            In addition to his other accomplishments, he also composed three unique long poems. “Mourning the Death of Hokuju Rōsen”, probably written in 1745, is an eighteen line elegy to an older poet of Yūki with whom Buson formed a close friendship. It eschews syllabic measure and is instead written in lines, both highly unusual. “Kema Riverbank in the Spring Breeze” is a poem of eighteen stanzas, using both Chinese and Japanese, written in 1777 and describing a young servant returning to visit her mother on her holiday. Buson wrote “The Yodo River” around the same time, a three stanza poem (again using both Chinese and Japanese forms) in the voice of a courtesan parting from a lover. More obviously in these hybrid forms, but also in the layers of allusion throughout his writing to such sources as T’ao Chien’s peach blossoms, Su Shih’s Red Cliff odes, Saigyō’s waka and Bashō’s haiku, Buson gradually managed to meld Chinese and Japanese poetry into a seamless whole, just as Cahill says of his paintings.

            The line of influence from the Chinese classical poets through Saigyō and Bashō is only one vein leading to Buson’s poetry. Buson was a thoroughly educated man, familiar with the poetry of the Japanese imperial anthologies, The Tale of Genji, early collections of narratives like the Tales of Ise and Tales of Yamato, military epics like the Tales of the Heike, noh dramas, and essayistic miscellanies like Sei Shōnagon’s Pillow Book and Kenkō’s Essays in Idleness. In addition, his poems are equally likely to refer to folk tales, ghost stories, popular proverbs, and children’s rhymes—the tension between the mundane and the classical was an important source of energy and compression in haiku. And the somber Chinese landscapes in his poems contrast sharply with other registers of image–cherry blossoms, plum blossoms, peonies, flowers and birds of all kinds, grotesquery, homely details of domestic life. But this vein was the one that gave Buson his ideal of how to be an artist, an ideal we can see all the more clearly in Buson’s anxiety at not being able to live up to it.

            Buson evoked The Tale of Genji in a poem the same way that he might call a painting “after the style of Ma Yuan,” as an artist exploring one of many stylistic possibilities available to him. But that a haiku should evoke the past in some way—this is a matter of aesthetic belief. In the few pieces of critical writing of Buson’s that survive, he exhorts poets to develop “an abiding sense of the past” and to read Chinese poetry. He worked to reinterpret that past as well as to evoke it. One of his lifelong tasks was to inscribe Bashō in the pantheon of the great poets of China and Japan; one of his last and best works is a folding screen filled with the illustrated text of Bashō’s Narrow Road to the Interior.

            We should keep in mind, however, his injunction that “in haikai there are no ancients.” He spoke of visiting and talking with his poetic ancestors as if literally. Poetry provided a common place where the different ages could meet. He also insisted that the sense of the past remain attached to the everyday world of the present: “Haikai wa zoku-go o mochiite zoku o hanaruru o tattobu: ‘Haiku values the use of commonplace language to transcend the commonplace,” according to Buson’s advice to his friend Shōha in the introduction to The Collected Verses of Shundei. Thus, in Buson’s haiku


            shira-ume ya                           White plum blossoms:

            sumi kambashiki                                 a fragrance of ink

            kōrokan                                                           in the Chinese embassy


the distant, imagined kōrokan—a Chinese office to receive foreign dignitaries, adopted in Japan but out of use by the 9th century (Bl.2, 574)—is paired with plum blossoms, a sight Buson would have directly experienced many times. The white blossoms and black ink invoke the brush strokes of sumi-e, and the smell of ink unites the far past, the ink painting of that scene, and the immediate writing of the haiku. In a judgment Buson makes at a haiku contest between Kitō and Gekkyo, Buson favored Gekkyo’s poem on a deer crying in autumn, even though Kitō’s was the more novel effort, because Gekkyo more strongly suggested direct experience. Buson used the vitality of the immediate to evoke the past in a visceral, unpretentious way.

            Buson began to suffer intense chest pains in the autumn of 1783. Shōha’s son was assembling an anthology of haiku and kasen by Buson’s circle, Five Carts of Scrap Paper, in memory of Shōha. Buson tried to write the preface from his sickbed, and Shōha’s son stole away with the unpolished draft when it became clear that Buson’s ailing health would not allow him to finish it as he would like. The anthology came out just before his death. He died of his illness on January 17, 1784 (although by the Japanese calender it was still the end of the previous year). His last concerns were for his daughter, whose future as a divorced wife was uncertain. He dictated his last three poems to his disciple Gekkei.


            Winter warbler

                        on Wang Wei’s hedge

                                    long ago...

            Bush warbler,

                        what are you doing? rustling away

                                    in the frosty thicket

            I begin to see

                        the night about to dawn

                                    in white plum blossoms

Kitō was also in attendance, and later wrote an account of Buson’s last days, called The Death of Old Man Midnight. However Buson may have struggled between his various choices, successful artisan or Taoist hermit, poet or painter, his three jisei or deathbed poems resolved this struggle in favor of the literati withdrawal of Wang Wei, in the white color of undivided desire. But only in death was he able to finally choose.

            Gekkei went on to concentrate on painting, and Kitō only outlived Buson by six years. The intense master and student relationship typical of the Japanese arts is a rather delicate one, as it depends so heavily on the faith and survival of so few people. Buson wrote down little of his teachings, and Kitō’s early death meant that his ideas about haiku were not passed down again (Blyth 1984, 2: 35). It was not until the early 20th century that the poet Shiki revived his status by tireless praise and explication.


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Haiku is supposed to be a poetics of observation of the natural world. We in the United States tend to impose a certain idea of nature on the poems: we read the poems through Whitman and Thoreau and our own traditions of nature writing, which venerate an idea of “pure” nature, untouched by human contact. The nature of Bashō and Buson is not so separated from human activity. Flowers blooming unseasonably on the roof, snow in the horse’s stirrups—haiku is first and foremost about the details of the changing seasons, which is why I have organized these translations around seasonal markers. This category of observation lends itself well to the underlying religious and philosophical assumptions of the poetry—that the world is constantly in flux, that we must learn to see past the illusion of stability. But the cycles themselves, year following year, millennium following millennium, extending outside of time, is the closest we can get to understanding eternity, and experiencing them is one of our points of contact with our predecessors—Buson’s warbler in the hedge is Wang Wei’s warbler in the hedge, even though they are separated by a thousand years and miles. Now the seasonal cycle is changing into something different than that eternal repetition, and we have brought on ourselves a new succession of skies and weathers. I therefore think of these translations as a kind of elegy. This is a way of thinking about nature and the world that we have lost, because it is no longer true.

© 2014 Amy England, rights reserved