Wednesday, 27 March 2013

Living in the moment: Bashō and mindfulness, via Tony Conran

This by Tony Conran from September 2005, Blithe Spirit vol 15 no.3, at www.poetry uk:

"In Bashō, as far as one can understand him through translation and commentary, what he sees is totally transparent to his humility. It becomes a vehicle for a kind of saintliness, a 'helpless' trust in the world as it blows him along his path, so that what he sees and writes about is in no real way to be distinguished from what he is. He feels love and compassion, for example, for the prostitutes who try to join him on his journey; but ultimately he knows that this love (caritas, or agape, as a Christian might call it) is not his business. If the gods or the great Buddhas wish to 'absent them from felicity awhile' to interfere and with compassion to help others on the way to enlightenment, that's their choice, but neither on them nor on us is it a mandatory demand.

The haiku is a sociable but not a social form. It is almost totally unrhetorical, having nothing to say to the will....Loneliness is the gift the haiku poet prizes above all, because it is the loneliness of detachment, not the bitter isolation of frustrated desire...haiku poets call it tenderness - fellow-feeling, a gentle acknowledgment that things exist outside yourself, which suffer and have their being in the Tao of enlightenment just as you do....

And a haiku must be slender because it makes no claim upon us other than an invitation to share its moment."

May I gently, in the spirit of tender loneliness Tony so eloquently describes, suggest you take a gander, if you don't already know it, at "The Narrow Road To The Deep North," Bashō, Penguin. *

*other editions are available - but there's only one Bashō, and there was only one Tony Conran.


  1. Two things, GM. Firstly deep thanks for directing me to that marvelous e-archive of poetry magazines. If there were a Vale equivalent of a Gloria it would be yours.
    Second, thank you for this lovely piece about Basho from Tony Conran. A poet's insight into another poet is always worth reading, and Tony here has a wonderful grasp of what makes the haiku so particular. I wanted to share something I read about the art that lay behnd Basho's brilliance. I have a book called the Haiku Handbook (by William J Higginson) In it he talks about the way that poets revised their haikus, quoting Basho as saying that 'On tongue-tip turn a thousand times'. Higginson then spends two pages describing the subtle changes between two versions of the same Haiku that Basho published in 1680 and 1689. The first is:
    On a barren branch
    A raven has come to settle...
    Autumn dusk.
    the later (revised) version reads:
    On a barren branch
    A raven has perched-
    Autumn dusk.
    The changes are subtle and not fully seen in the transaltion. I wanted to share it because, although Tony talks about the Haiku as a moment shared, craftsman and poet that he was, he would have understood and appreciated the attention and effort that went into making the particular so immediate, resonant and universal.

  2. "come to settle..." "perched - "
    They seem very different to me, but I'm not going to risk saying how.
    " what he sees and writes about is in no real way to be distinguished from what he is." So the world moves through him as he moves through the world, and this movement generates the haiku.
    Poetry born of mindfulness, of the poet being in the present and letting the present moment be the poet. "Making the the particular....the universal," you say, Vale - as great poetry can and does. Maybe it's good for us in our post-Romantic, post-Modernist furore, just to focus down on the clear lens of Basho and his haiku, join his loneliness. Not poetry of the will, argues Tony, not of any effort to make it new or make it mine. Just supremely careful craftsmanship and a delicate strength. Even in translation, much to enjoy and be grateful for here.