Poetic Parallels

Matsuo Basho’s poetic aesthetics were derived from the belief that the artist should focus his creative spirit on the existential truth of art. This energy would cultivate a transcendent awareness of nature and the state of being, and the poet’s heightened sense of natural phenomenon could then achieve great depth of meaning in his haikai. The resulting poems found a new lightness and regenerative spirituality amongst the everyday commoner life. In analyzing the poems of Kobayashi Issa, it is apparent that his artistry mirrored Basho’s aesthetic ideals of “awakening to the high, returning to the low.”

Matsuo Basho’s poetic aesthetics were derived from the belief that the artist should focus his creative spirit on the existential truth of art. This energy would cultivate a transcendent awareness of nature and the state of being, and the poet’s heightened sense of natural phenomenon could then achieve great depth of meaning in his haikai. The resulting poems found a new lightness and regenerative spirituality amongst the everyday commoner life. In analyzing the poems of Kobayashi Issa, it is apparent that his artistry mirrored Basho’s aesthetic ideals of “awakening to the high, returning to the low.”

Through his poems, Basho brought meaning and elevated purpose to the ordinary, just as Issa would later do in his work. This was accomplished by drawing artistic inspiration from “the movement and rhythm of nature, especially of the seasons” (203) before returning to temporal creative endeavors.  Basho idealized the transformative power of thought, believing that “the poet who ‘follows the creative’ implicitly engages in a process of spiritual cultivation that allows the Creative within to join the Creative of the cosmos… Without spiritual cultivation and the ability to enter into objects, the haikai poet will not have the power to discover the high in the low, to find beauty in the mundane” (203).

It is evident in the complexity of his work that Issa’s artistic methods paralleled those of Basho. His roots in tragedy and misfortune allowed him a special vantage point with which to find poetic inspiration. Upon the death of his beloved young daughter, Issa captured his sentiments in drops of dew:

tsuyu no yo wa                               this world of dew’s

tsuyu no yo nagara                       a world of dew, and yet—

sarinagara                                       and yet…

Issa’s heartbreaking experiences allowed him to find the reverence and beauty in the melancholic, and to represent feeling in objects and scenes which would otherwise be meaningless. By focusing the creative spirit inward, he explored his heart and mind as both human and artist. In “awakening to the high,” Issa was able to assign the dew drops a poignant sadness and fragility, their existence representing the Buddhist truth of the inevitability of impermanence.

By pulling inspiration from existential thought and applying his findings to daily observations, Issa’s poetry came to depict the world in a unique way. His “outsider” perspective on urbanity garnered an unorthodox approach toward haikai. He broke away from the traditional season-centric styles of past poets, and instead focused on such minute naturalistic elements that his artistry was undoubtedly drawn from the reverence of the existential “high.” The following poem illustrates the great depth which Issa was able to achieve by invoking the aesthetic ideals of Basho:

ari no michi                                    The line of ants

kumo no mine yori                      seems to start

tsuzukiken                                      from the towering clouds

The depth of Issa’s observations in this poem reach far beyond the simplistic image of wandering ants. The vastness of the looming sky juxtaposed with the impossible smallness of the ants simultaneously evokes contradictory feelings of distance and proximity. The existential vantage point from which Issa wrote provides clear evidence that his work was born from Basho’s concept of “awakening to the high, returning to the low.” With just three words, ari no michi (the line of ants,) the poem reflects upon the strange beauty of the smallness, the insignificance, and the fragility of existence. The lowly creatures have descended from the realm of the stately clouds, as if to say that everything, from the tiniest insect to the mightiest natural element, is connected. While Issa’s poems begin at the low and move to the high, one feels only their poetic sameness.

 


 

Works Cited

  • Shirane, Haruo. Early Modern Japanese Literature an Anthology, 1600-1900. New York: Columbia UP, 2002. Print.
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