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91: A MASTER OF THE ART

May 25, 2014

#91:  A MASTER OF THE ART.  The official and immutable cliché of Japanese literature is that the three greatest haiku poets are Basho, Issa and Buson—always in that order, with Masaoka Shiki sometimes tagging along as a late fourth.  Basho for his depth of feeling, his variety of mood and subject, his having brought to its full achievement the haiku as an expressive form; Issa for his moving and charming personality, his unique orphan’s tenderness and melancholy; and Buson for—a rather ill-defined third.  The exact nature of his accomplishment, at least as we receive it in translation, is peculiarly hard to define.  He has no dominating mood, no unusual timbre of voice—his haiku are just, by the hundreds, small, perfected moments of attentive and artistic vision.  He has been called the Brahms to Basho’s Beethoven—not a bad call, I’d say.  He was a more level spirit than Basho; compare Basho’s final poem (“Being ill on a journey / my dreams run wandering / through withered fields.”) with Buson’s (“With white plum blossoms / these nights to the faint light of dawn / are turning.”).  Maybe what can best be said of him is that in a time when haiku was degenerating into sentiment and vulgar joking, Buson took from Basho his master’s immensely serious dedication to the haiku both as a literary form and as an expression of wisdom.  I believe W. S. Merwin is currently (November 2012) working on a new translation, but at the moment I know of only one book in English dedicated to Buson’s work; fortunately the book is Haiku Master Buson, by Yuki Sawa and Edith M. Shiffert, which could hardly be bettered:  375 haiku, some longer poems and prose, introductory essays and biography, in print from White Pine Press’s great Companions for the Journey series.  Here Buson comes into his own not as anybody’s third but as a master of profound power and splendid accessibility.

      P.S. 2014:  Merwin’s translation, done with Takako Lento (Collected Haiku of Yosa Buson, Copper Canyon Press, 2013) is, as one might’ve hoped, wonderful.  Buson nixed the idea of a collection of his poems, considering himself “just among the ordinary,” but his disciples published a two-volume edition anyway as a memorial volume; it’s this work that Merwin and Lento have translated, along with three longer poems, including an extraordinary elegy for the hermit Hokuju.  So narrowly does even the greatest work sometimes escape oblivion.  “I have brought the melancholy of my heart / up the hill / to the wild roses in flower.”  “The flame in the hanging lantern / almost blown out / again and again.”  “Since Basho left / not a single year / has lived up to its promise."

        For Buson's paintings and drawings, The Poet-Painters: Buson and His Followers (University of Michigan Museum of Art) is the catalogue of an exhibit done in 1974; the text is intelligent and extensive, but the largely black-and-white reproductions are a bit disappointing.  We very much need a new work on this subject.

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