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Basho - Example 1 of a Paper on Basho

by David Barnhill last modified Apr 03, 2011 07:37 AM

Tara Mortimer, English 244
David Barnhill, 3 May 2005

The Creative: Entering and Accepting Nature

Picture a simple man, with simple clothing, and a simple walking stick traveling through the mountains. He stops to rest, lets the bag drop from his shoulder, and takes out his paper and pen. With minimal thought and maximum emotion, Matsuo Bashō has just entered nature, and nature has entered him. Through his writing, Bashō achieves the ultimate idea of the creative, resulting in an imperceptible boundary between nature and humanity.

Before explaining the ways in which Bashō does this, one must understand exactly what the creative is in Japanese art, and before explaining the role of the creative in composing poetry, the creative must be defined through its role in nature. Nature is thought of as something that does not act according to desire, or other controlling emotions. Instead, nature just happens. For example, a tree does not grow because it wants to be the tallest tree around, but instead it grows because that is its reaction to elements such as rain and sunlight. In a sense, there is no thought involved in nature’s actions. This explains why nature seems to be so sought after in Japanese culture. Acting without desire results in a person acting completely natural. David Barnhill writes that “There is a creative force in nature which fashions beauty with skillful artistry” (“Zōka” 13). It is thought of as completely beautiful to live life the way nature does.

Creativity relies a great deal on spontaneity as well. When one acts spontaneously, it is thought that everything they do is without thought, consideration, or reflection, but at the same time, would not the person be desiring to act spontaneously? This is an obstacle humans must overcome to fully understand the creative. This is why nature is held so high in the idea of the creative. Nature does not have this element of desire causing static within the creative cycle. Put simply, nature is spontaneous, therefore creative.

How does the artist achieve this? Barnhill writes, “The process of creating a painting or a poem is directly related to the creativity of nature. The artist participates in nature’s creative power, and thus acts in a spontaneous way” (“Creative Process” 27). Instead of sitting at a desk thinking about what it would be like to be looking at the moon on an autumn evening, the poet goes out into the night and looks at the moon. Not only does he witness what they hope to write about, but what he creates is not necessarily premeditated in such a way. Ultimately, the poet experiences nature, feels the experience and immediately composes a poem in reaction. This is where the often-used phrase of “just be” comes from. Instead of writing of the moon, be the moon, and write. Barnhill supports this, stating that “The creative process is a natural arising of words in response to the perception of the object” and also that “The poet does not write the poem in the sense of deliberate, calculated, willful production. The poet, emptied of self and unified with the object, is the medium for creation to happen” (“Poetics” 86). A writer has not achieved the status of “artist” until they can write in this fashion.

Knowing that a writer must go out and experience nature is not enough. How do they do so? Should they be looking for something? Waiting for a sign? A feeling? Unfortunately, in doing any of these things, the writer may eliminate what is needed to enter nature in the first place. Waiting for something to happen is another form of desiring for something to happen. The writer would just sit there, concentrating on the want for something to occur in nature, rather than concentrating on what is already occurring around them. The writer needs to exhaust what already exists. Barnhill explains that “the artist must incorporate [the creative power of nature] fully of participate in it completely” (“Creative Process” 27-28). Exhaustion is less an action and more a state of being. The artists must lose themselves to enter nature, while at the same time react to it completely as themselves through their experience.


This “connection between nature’s creativity and human art” is not something easily understood, even by haiku masters such as Bashō. Barnhill explains that “at times Bashō, like many Chinese poets and artists before him, questioned the artist’s ability to capture nature’s beauty” (“Zōka” 9). According to Tohō, a disciple of Bashō, there should not be more than “a hair’s breadth between you and the writing desk” (“Poetics” 86). The point here is clear: nothing should come between the writer and the written. But is this idea not a bit hypocritical? Is not the desk coming between the writer and nature? Should not the artist be out in the natural world in order to eliminate any obscurities from their creation? Barnhill is able to make the same point that Tohō believes, but in a way that seems much more conducive to the idea of the creative. He writes, “There is a suddenness…of writing with no separation between vision and writing. This can occur because the poet is in a state of genuineness, with no artificial self, no willful ego, deciding and directing the creative process” (“Poetics” 86). The word “suddenness” seems to describe Bashō’s way of simply creating, rather than experiencing and then later recording the event at a desk. It is possible that an artist is able to re-enter the moment in such a way, but there is a great risk of losing the complete experience and all that came with it.

As stated earlier, art should mimic the spontaneity of nature. In doing this, the lines between human-created art and naturally created “art” are blurred. Taken a step further, human-created art is actually created by nature, because it is completely natural to spontaneously create anything. Barnhill explains how Bashō felt about this idea when he writes that “The skill and beauty involved in the metamorphoses of nature suggested to Bashō…that there is a parallel between art and the creativity of nature…Artistic creativity is essentially the same mode of activity as nature’s ongoing creative work” (“Zōka” 8). Tohō is able to confirm Bashō’s beliefs on this idea when he explains that “The Master said, ‘Learn of the pine from the pine, learn of the bamboo from the bamboo’” (“Poetics” 85). There is essentially no other way to truly learn of nature than from it. If Bashō had written all of his poetry, but never left the inside of his home, something would be lacking in his words, whether they were exactly the same or not.


Just as an artist may seem to understand the “work” involved in truly achieving creativity, Bashō throws another curve ball. Barnhill explains how Bashō “spoke of leaving a haiku poem ‘unfinished,’ without everything described, in order to allow the reader to enter the poem” (“Creative Work” 29). Although the artist’s experience is what created the poem, the reader also plays an active role in experiencing the creativity of the work. Because the reader was not out there with Bashō as he was moon gazing, he simply cannot experience exactly what Bashō had at that moment. Instead of trying to explain exactly what he experienced in order to include the reader, Bashō leaves a certain level of ambiguity to the piece, allowing the reader to possibly experience the moment in a unique way. This does not take away from the work, because both reader and writer had an experience. It does not necessarily matter that they were the same, it matters more that each instance included a spontaneous and creative reaction.

To better explain how this entire system works, Barnhill has explained the idea of the creative through four different points. The first point is that “life involves a process of transformation that is unpredictable, sometimes wild and potentially destructive” (“Zōka” 6). Basically stated, one cannot plan out their own life before them. Two poems by Bashō that exemplify this can be found in is first travel journal, “Journal of Bleached Bones in a Field.” The first poem,

month’s end, no moon:
a thousand year cedar
embraced by a windstorm (119)

may initially seem to be somewhat ironic to the reader. The presence of a windstorm, in Western culture, signifies danger, and one easily pictures the old tree falling to the ground. What Bashō is really seeing in this scene is an old tree who is accepting (“embraced”) all of the processes of nature. Because the tree is so old, one also gets the idea that nature is not trying to destroy, but instead is just playing out its natural and spontaneous cycle.

A second, and similar, poem is found in the same journal. It reads:

planted ivy
and five or six stalks of bamboo
in the windstorm (119)

Again the presence of the windstorm implies danger, and in this poem it is ivy and bamboo standing up against the elements, rather than a thousand year old tree. If one was concerned for the cedar, destruction is almost certain in this poem, yet Bashō is not communicating fear. Bashō is merely taking in the scene, understanding that nature is creative and acts without desire, therefore making the scene beautiful and artistic.

The second point that Barnhill uses to explain the creative is that the “process is the movement of life itself and thus something we should accept, value, and follow along with, even if it means our death” (“Zōka” 6). In other words, to truly enter into the spontaneity of nature, one must accept all that occurs as part of the creative process. If a storm blows your house away, do not get angry and bitter, but instead take it as a sign that it is time to move on. This idea is explained to the extreme, and shows just how powerful entering nature can be. Barnhill points out that even if it means death, one must be accepting and welcoming of nature’s actions. When Bashō set off while composing his first travel journal, he fully accepted the possibility of his own death. The first poem of the journal reads:

bleached bones
on my mind, the wind pierces
my body to the heart (Bleached Bones 117).

Bashō must have realized, upon setting out, the dangers ahead of him, yet felt so strongly about the creative that he accepted all that could happen to him. Clearly, he does not feel ready to die, as the thought (and the wind) pierces into his heart, but he is willing to move past this. He moves out of his own mind, cluttered with fear, and enters the flow of nature.

Another poem that mimics this idea of accepting one’s fate is found in Barnhill’s book Bashō’s Haiku. It reads:

soon to die,
yet no sign of it:
a cicada’s cry (114).

This poem shows a scene where one can hear cicadas crying. Bashō is reflecting on the idea that, although they do not know it, these cicadas will die soon. Instead of fearing the end of their lives, they are simply existing, crying out into the world. This is a model of how humans can achieve the creative. When they are completely immersed in the creative, they will not act according to fears, doubts, or desires, but will just act spontaneously in accordance to what happens around them.

The third point that Barnhill uses to explain the creative is that “this ‘creation’ refers not to the coming-into-being of the universe at the beginning of time, but rather the ongoing transformations of life” (“Zōka” 6). Stated simply, nature is not seen as a timeline with a beginning and an end, but is a continuous cycle. Human life is seen the same way. Life is not measured from birth to death, but is seen as an element that affects all around it, playing a larger role in the occurrences of the world.

In his travel journal, “The Narrow Road to the Deep North,” Bashō writes of a battlefield that he comes to. He writes:

summer grass—
all that remains
of warriors’ dreams (164).

Bashō does not merely see this site as a place where soldiers once fought and died, nor does he see it as a simple field of grass. Instead, he sees all that has happened here at once. The soldiers had died on this ground, their blood soaking into the earth, and after many years, this earth has grown over in new grass. The soldiers are a part of the grass, as the grass is also part of the soldiers. There is no end and no beginning to the existence of the field, and it could not be what it is presently without being what it once was.

Another poem that can be used to explain this is:

in a world of rain
life is like Sogi’s
temporary shelter (Bashō’s Haiku 31).

Bashō is explaining that life is temporary, yet when comparing it to Sogi, another known poet, and his shelter, it can be seen differently. Sogi’s memory lives on, transcending his own physical life. Also, although the shelter has been destroyed by rain, the rain will always continue to fall. On the surface, the poem sends a message of the shortness of life, but looking deeper into the poem, there is a message of the continuance of one single life within an entire cycle.

The fourth, and final, point Barnhill makes about the creative is that “the process involves some kind of agency and skill which can’t simply be reduced to the natural world” (“Zōka” 6). In other words, humans cannot explain or fully understand how the creative works. Instead it must simply be accepted and trusted. Because the creative does not act merely on “earthly” terms, it cannot be explained in “earthly” words. There are other forces acting here, which cannot be conceived by the simple human being. A poem by Bashō that parallels this idea was written in his travel journal “Journal of Bleached Bones in a Field.” Upon returning to his mother’s home, he meets his family and learns of his mother’s death. They have kept some of her hair, and as Bashō looks on he writes:

should I take it in my hand

it would melt in these hot tears:

autumn frost (120).

Stating the poem simply, Bashō feels that if he takes hold of his mother’s hair, his tears will melt it away. Clearly this is not possible, but it is the perfect explanation for the moment that Bashō is experiencing. Sometimes, things that are physically impossible can best mimic an emotion. In the same sense, the creative cannot always be explained in earthly terms, and therefore must simply be trusted for what it is.

These four points help to explain the major ideas of the creative. Bashō’s poetry takes these ideas further, showing them through images that he has experienced. Barnhill writes that “All of life is a manifestation of the Creative and is therefore beautiful” (“Zōka” 9). When one can fully enter the creative, they can experience all of life’s beauty, but when hindered by fears and desires, one is held back from fully feeling that beauty.

Barnhill also points out that Bashō believes that “The artist, and every cultured person, should return to this cosmic creativity, recognize its beauty, and follow its movements” (“Zōka” 13). This statement says a great deal. First of all, Bashō is not limiting the life of the creative to just artists, but feels that it is important for all beings to understand. Understanding the creative is not just a technique to create good art, but is a way to live one’s life. Second, Barnhill writes that all should “return to this cosmic creativity.” This suggests that as humans, we have all once obtained this creativity. Another way one can explain the creative is through youth. Young children are often thought of as pure. When they are first entering the world, they do not know of desire, fear, jealousy etc. Instead, they merely act spontaneously to their own impulses. This can be considered a model of the creative. Because babies do not have inhibitions, they are not tainted by their own thoughts and are, in turn, not held back from fully experiencing life. Bashō encourages us to revert back to this stage of our lives.

Other physical states that can mimic the creative are when one is asleep or intoxicated. In both instances, one is not acting on any inhibitions. The human is allowed to dream freely, or act spontaneously as a result of these states. A poem that highlights this idea is written about Bashō, and what he experiences while intoxicated. He writes:

sticking my drunken face
out the window (Bashō’s Haiku 138).

This poem does not say what he was feeling as he did this, but instead just explains that he simply did it. There was no thought beforehand as to whether or not he should do it, and there is no explanation of what happened after he did it. It is a simple act, but it says a great deal about acting spontaneously. This small action explain’s Bashō hope for all to experience the creative.

In summary, Bashō, through his writing, encourages all humans to mimic nature. By losing all fears and desires, one will be able to enter the natural world and react to it spontaneously, without thoughts and considerations of consequences to blur the way. This is the idea of the creative, and to be creative is to be nature. To create art creatively, is to recreate what one has experienced in nature. Put simply, art is nature.


Works Cited


Barnhill, David Landis, trans. Basho's Haiku: Selected Poems of Matsuo Basho. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 2004.


-----. "The Creative Process." Barnhill, David, ed. Study Aids for Japanese Nature Writing: Part One. Oshkosh: University of Wisconsin Oshkosh Press, 2005: 27.


-----. "The Creative Work of Art." Barnhill, David, ed. Study Aids for Japanese Nature Writing:


-----. "The Poetics of the Basho School." Barnhill, David, ed. Study Aids for Japanese Nature Writing: Part One. Oshkosh: University of Wisconsin Oshkosh Press, 2005: 85.


-----. “Zoka: The Creative in Basho's View of Nature and Art”. Forthcoming.


-----, trans. Basho's Journey: The Literary Prose of Matsuo Basho. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 2005.

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by David Barnhill last modified Apr 03, 2011 07:37 AM