Novelist Akutagawa Ryunosuke (1892–1927), at the beginning of his essay “Basho Note,” sarcastically writes, “Basho has never written a single book. What they call “Shichibu-shu” is nothing more than a text produced by his disciples.” I myself have long been indifferent to the chain of renga he spun out all over Japan with his renju. Instead, I was intoxicated with the beautiful style of his famous travel essay “Oku-no-hosomichi,” which led me to conclude that my reading of Basho’s literature was already sufficient.
It was in the spring of 2006 that my husband casually handed me a copy of his article on the subject. At that time his quotations from Sarumino interested me and I decided to translate the whole thesis into English.
What stimulated my poetic sensibility most were the following passages:
Modern literature....in some sense has been fundamentally understood as self-expression...(it) expresses the individual self of its creator. (Chap. II)
In direct contrast, the openness of renga depends on the participants (renju) working together. Moreover, an element of alterity...enters the system of the particular renga due to the collaborative presence of the other participants. (Chap. I)
Calling renga the co-creation of multiple subjectivities, the author attempts to elucidate its meanings.
Now, let us have a closer look at the second kasen of Sarumino Vol. 5. Here three poets, Boncho, Basho and Kyorai, spin out a total of twelve strophes each. First comes Boncho’s opening hokku: ‘In Kyoto city/smells are drifting/the summer moon.’ This is followed by Basho’s waki: ‘It’s hot, it’s hot/voices from every household’ (Hibiki-no-tsuke). In turn, Kyorai takes up the thread of the waki with its associations of the hot and humid season, and draws out the daisan or third strophe as follows: ‘Neglecting the second weeding/ears of rice have already sprouted.’ In this strophe, Kyorai’s humorous self-ridiculing verse slightly alters the direction of the warp of the renga. When the composition comes round again to him, Boncho unexpectedly steers the poem in a seemingly unrelated direction: ‘I knock the ashes off/a grilled sardine.’ It seems that the only common ground that sustains these juxtaposed strophes is carelessness and negligence.
In this way renga is spun out, but its process is so elusive that I find it hard to state an overall impression of the kasen as a whole. In such a situation, Terada Torahiko’s explanation gives me a clue: Linked poetry is not so much literature as music. (“Renku-zasso”). According to Terada, linked poetry consists of rhythm, melody and harmony. Each strophe possesses a meaning but the kasen as a whole does not constitute a narrative plot. The formal ending of a kasen looks as if it were still unfolding because an ageku (a final strophe) does not function as a conclusion. Were renga music, then could I easily feel convinced that this explanation makes sense of the matter.
As one creates a strophe, is it possible to abandon one’s ego completely, to give up the security of self-consistency? Even if the ego itself cannot be annihilated, it is no great matter to give up adherence to ego consciousness; instead, one can engage in the convivial atmosphere of the za, ‘clarify your mind, share the mood as the living flesh, and make every effort possible to versify and produce superb poems,’ as Nijo Yoshimoto put it. In short, ‘be fully immersed in the verse, not full of yourself.’ A passage from Sarumino I quoted above reminds me of the performance of a musical trio in which Basho plays as a concert master.
A little further down from the ‘hot Kyoto’ strophes, Boncho sings: ‘It’s chilly and harsh in winter/living in Nanao of Noto Peninsula.’ To this Basho in turn links the following strophe: ‘I’ve survived so long/as to lick fish bones.’ What we notice here is his greatness in distinguishing his ego’s personality by giving up the consiousness of ego. He transcends a mere personal complaint of an old man and intensifies the aging-process from which no one is immune into the realm of universality. It overwhelms me to see Basho singing with such lightness (karumi) of the inevitability of old age.
In the above article we have already examined and appreciated the very precious linking unit (kingyoku-no-tsukeai
) in the fifth paragraph of the Chapter 3
. The fourth strophe runs: ‘At the end of this world/we all end up being a Komachi.’ However, the horrible imagery of this strophe was not
presented as a final strophe. Actually, they added four more strophes, the last two of which are as follows:
I let lice creep on my palm/under the cherry blossoms.
Languorous is the noon/when the mist doesn’t move.
Surprisingly enough, this kasen abrubtly changes from the horrible mood of its climax, only to conclude with such lightness. Even a sense of being fed up lingers as if such a horrendous strophe as to see through to the limits of this world had not existed at all. Kyorai’s ageku catches the mood of the previous strophe by his master as it is, rendering the atmosphere of lightness decisive as a finale.
However, this sense of languor is somewhat different from the cold, nihilistic ennui in the decadent tradition of Western literature. What should be noted is that Master Basho gazes through the microcosmic shades in terms of lice on a palm, and thereby the calmly detached philosophy of life becomes an integral part of haikai-renga.
In other words, the final two strophes may play the part of coda in the organic whole of kasen. It goes without saying that the ancient Japanese race cherishing harmony (wa) succeeded in creating this totality solely by dint of words.
We quite instinctively tend to seek for a plot in any writings, which have been taken for granted especially in the genre of a novel. It was the appearances of Marcel Proust and James Joyce that brought about modernism, which liberated novels from a dynamically unfolding plot.
How about poetry then? Needless to say, modern poetry is teeming with examples of inaccessible works that ignore not only plot but also semantics and consequences. It may often be the case that even a poet cannot explain his/her own work. T. S. Eliot is one of those who caused such a formidable tendency, good or bad.
So lastly, I’d like to compare renga’s tsuke-ai
with the so-called juxtaposition in the modern poetry. According to the Ogawa article, in tsuke-ai
a strophe should be organically connected with a previous one. On the other hand, an example of the disconnecting effect of juxtaposition is found in the concluding eleven lines of The Waste Land
which, Eliot intended to be a polyphony.
I sat upon the shore
Fishing, with the arid plain behind me
Shall I at least set my lands in order?
London Bridge is falling down falling down falling down
Poi s’ascose nel foco che gli affina
Quando fiam uti chelidon—O swallow swallow
Le Prince d’Aquitaine à la tour abolie
These fragments I have shored against my ruins
Why then Ile fit you. Hieronymo’s mad againe.
Datta. Dayadhvam. Damyata.
Shantih shantih shantih
Almost each line is isolated, and we can hardly connect a line with the preceding one in imagery. One eminent scholar of English literature once criticized wondering why Eliot could not write even the concluding passage of his masterpiece by using his own words.
I do not suppose every passage and every line all through The Waste Land is juxtaposed and disconnected. All I want to insist is this. A distinctive characteristic of the modern poetry may be that an author’s single ego tends to propagate heterogeneous egos within a poem, which may confuse the reader’s understanding and diffuse his/her focus. In contrast, plural egos of the renju in renga gather in one place in harmony, creating one and the common organic literature. Yet, each participant’s ego or individuality could still be conspicuous.
I do not mean to discuss either superiority or inferiority of renga and juxtaposition. As one of the modern day poets I wish to re-examine the destiny of a literary ego that is apt to slip into the solitude hell or the ‘funk hole.’