By now it’s no secret to this blog’s readers that I’ve been absorbed in Matsuo Bashō’s travel sketches as translated by Nobuyuki Yuasa. I am working my way toward his masterpiece in this genre of haibun, “The Narrow Road to the Deep North.” The road to The Narrow Road is beautiful, because Bashō tried out various approaches before figuring out how to integrate prose and poetry in a mutually illuminating way, and it’s a pleasure to watch him working it all out.
More than a pleasure, though. Parts of each travel sketch are really sublime (the haiku, usually), but I’m also loving Bashō’s comments on poetry and himself as a poet. Here, for example, is the first paragraph of “The Records of a Travel-Worn Satchel”:
In this mortal frame of mine which is made of a hundred bones and nine orifices there is something, and this something is called a wind-swept spirit for lack of a better name, for it is much like a thin drapery that is torn and swept away at the slightest stir of the wind. This something in me took to writing poetry years ago, merely to amuse itself at first, but finally making it its lifelong business. It must be admitted, however, that there were times when it sank into such dejection that it was almost ready to drop its pursuit, or again times when it was so puffed up with pride that it exulted in vain victories over the others. Indeed, ever since it began to write poetry, it has never found peace with itself, always wavering between doubts of one kind and another. At one time it wanted to gain security by entering the service of a court, and at another it wished to measure the depth of its ignorance by trying to be a scholar, but it was prevented from either because of its unquenchable love of poetry. The fact is, it knows no other art than the art of writing poetry, and therefore, it hangs on to it more or less blindly.
I read these passages and nod yes, yes!—well aware that this being in thrall to the “wind-swept spirit” is certainly all I have in common with the Japanese master. The greatest poet and most tin-eared versifier share this one thing—this thin, torn drapery buffeted by mortal experience, this “something” that’s so easily swept away by the love of poetry.