Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Dreaming Poetics 7: Basho as Traveling Poet

from Bashô and the Mastery of Poetic Space in Oku no hosomichi
by Steven D. Carter
in Journal of the American Oriental Society, Vol. 120, No. 2 pp190-198.

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If we want a better understanding of Oku no hosomichi as a product and not just a by-product of Basho's professional practice, then, it may be that we should start by seeing that record in terms of its genre affiliations, which connect it back to a long tradition of travel writing by poets in similar circumstances.
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Nonetheless, it is clear that his foremost concern is not to guide tourists, but poets-and less with telling them how to get to specific sites than with instructing them in how to travel as poets. What above all he wants to create is an instructive image of himself as a poet on the road, responding to challenges, practicing his hermeneutic expertise. One thinks, for instance, of his famous description of Ryushakuji…
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So well known is the hokku produced there that one must remind oneself that the trip to Ryushakuji was actually a detour for the poet and was nowhere on his itinerary. In that sense, the hokku can be said to have come about almost by accident. Nevertheless, it was Basho's dedication to the hermeneutic enterprise-the challenge of striding out, and of converting the experience of landscape into poetry-that made the accident possible. Without the dedication required in climbing up the long trail to the temple, neither the experience at the top nor the famous poem would ever have happened.
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There are many other prescriptions for the traveling poet in Basho’s text. Perhaps the most obvious is that one must go the road alone, or at least as if alone; hence the scarce mention of group activities (one wonders if in some way time spent on the road felt like a consolation to those who were so involved in group activities at every stop) and the tendency to treat experience as solitary even when it was not…
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Another feature of the text that can be attributed to established rhetorical practice is the constant reminder that poetic travel is movement through time as well as space as Basho states explicitly in a passage about a stone monument-again something not on his itinerary in Ichikawa Village, near Matsushima….
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But there are also lessons in thetext specifically for haikai poets, indeed for Basho's own students, who would be primary readers of his record. The most important of these is that the haikai poet should be open to all experience as "literary" in a way that poets of the more courtly forms of the past generally were not. It is for this reason that in Oku no hosomichi we have references not only to historical figures such as Saigyo and Yoshitsune, but also to a host of locals…..
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Basho has become a truly transcendent figure, reified almost to the point of non-existence as a historical being. An account of his actual practice as both traveler and travel writer may help to show him for what he was-very much a human being, involved in struggles political and otherwise, a professional practitioner entangled in discursive negotiations and caught up in the nitty-gritty challenges of life on the road.
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1 comment:

Barbara said...

"So well known is the hokku produced there that one must remind oneself that the trip to Ryushakuji was actually a detour for the poet and was nowhere on his itinerary."

Somehow that seems fitting. It seems sometimes that the detours in life bring us our greatest lessons, and get us thinking in new ways. It's those shifts in perspective that help us progress.