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Basho - Glossary of Terms

by David Barnhill last modified Nov 21, 2010 06:03 PM

bashō. “Banana” or “plantain.” A small, tropical-looking tree with large oblong leaves that rarely bears fruit in Japan. The leaves tear easily in wind and rain, and so the plant has become a symbol of impermanence. Matsuo Bashō took his most famous pen name from this plant precisely because it was so vulnerable to nature elements and “useless.” A seasonal word for autumn.

danrin. A popular school of haikai poetry established by Nishiyama Sōin (1605-1682). It gave poets greater freedom in subject matter, imagery, tone, and poetic composition than the earlier Teimon school. Bashō was a follower of this school before he set up his own, known as Shōmon.

fūga. “The poetic spirit.” A combination of “wind” and “elegance,” this term refers to the aesthetic vitality and sensitivity found in haikai poetry as well as associated arts such as waka, landscape painting, and the tea ceremony.

fūryū. “Aesthetic elegance.” It is an extraordinarily complex term, including associations of high culture, art in general, poetry, and music, as well as ascetic wayfaring and Daoist eccentricity. Bashō sees the roots of these in rural culture.

haibun. “Haikai prose-poems.” Normally a brief prose text that exhibits haikai aesthetics and includes hokku. Bashō was the first great haibun writer.

haikai. “Comic, unorthodox.” An abbreviation of haikai no renga, but also a used as a general term for other genres and art forms that show haikai no renga aesthetics and what Bashō called the poetic spirit (fūga). In this general sense, it might be translated as Haikai Poetry or Haikai Art. For Bashō it involved a combination of comic playfulness and spiritual depth, ascetic practice and involvement in the “floating world” of human society.

haikai no renga. “Comic renga,” although “unorthodox” or “plebian” may be more accurate than “comic.” A verse form, similar to traditional renga, that developed in the late medieval and Tokugawa periods. Compared to traditional renga, its aesthetics were more inclusive in subject matter and imagery and more earthy and playful in tone. Parodies of the classical literature were common. Bashō was a master of haikai no renga.

haiku. An independent verse form with a 5-7-5 syllabic rhythm. A modern term, its was popularized by the great but short-lived poet Masaoka Shiki (1867-1902) who wanted to establish the haiku as a verse form that stands by itself, separate from the linked verses of a renga. It is supposed to contain a season word (kigo). When the West first learned about Bashō and other pre-modern poets, the term haiku was anachronistically applied to their hokku. Properly speaking, haiku refers only to poems written in the modern period (beginning 1868). However, because of the popularity of this term and because of the strong continuity in the literary traditions of hokku and haiku, I use the term haiku for Bashō’s hokku.

hokku. “Opening stanza.” The first stanza of a renga, with a 5-7-5 syllabic rhythm. This stanza was considered the most important and was usually offered by the master poet at a linked-verse gathering. A season word was required. Eventually poets wrote hokku as semi-independent verse: as potential starting verses for a renga sequence, to accompany prose in travel journals and haibun, or to be admired on their own.

karumi. “Lightness.” An aesthetic characterized by greater attention to the mundane aspects of life, everyday diction, and generally avoiding the heavy, serious tone of some classical Japanese and Chinese poetry. Bashō promoted this aesthetic in his last years.

kasen. A thirty-six stanza haikai no renga, the most common form in Bashō’s time.

kigo. “Season word.” A word that in the literary tradition suggests a particular season (e.g. autumn) and possibly a part of a season (e.g., early spring), even if the object (e.g., moon or bush warbler) may be seen in other seasons. Season words may be an image derived from human activity (such as a seasonal ritual) as well as from nature. Every hokku and haiku should contain a season word. Traditionally collections of Japanese hokku and haiku verse were organized by seasonal order. There are now numerous season words dictionaries (saijiki or kigo jiten).

kikō bungaku. “Travel literature.” Accounts of travel in prose, often accompanied by verse. Similar to and overlapping nikki bungaku, diary literature.

monogatari. “Narrative.” Prose narratives and tales, often including verse and sometimes quite lengthy. The genre began and reached its peak in the Heian Period (794-1186). The most famous is The Tale of Genji (Genji monogatari), by Murasaki Shikibu (ca. 1000).

mujō. “Impermanence.” A prominent and complex idea in Japanese literature as well as Buddhism and Daoism, and central to Bashō’s writings. One of the most fundamental aspects of life is its changefulness, which can take many forms: the regular cycles of the seasons, the creative transformations of nature, the rise and inevitable fall of ruling houses, the inescapable degeneration of aging, the inconstancy of lovers, the inevitability of death, the uncertainty of life, etc.

nikki bungaku. “Diary literature.” Diaries have been a prominent form of high literature since the Heian Period (794-1186), although this term is fairly recent. See kikō bungaku.

renga. “Classical linked verse.” Renga is a linked-verse or sequenced poem with multiple, alternating stanzas. The first stanza consists of a 5-7-5 syllabic rhythm. This is then coupled with another stanza with a 7-7 syllabic rhythm making a poetic unit of 5-7-5 and 7-7. Then comes the third stanza with a 5-7-5 rhythm. This is linked with the second stanza to make a poetic unit of 7-7 and 5-7-5, with the first stanza “forgotten.” The linked verse continues this way, usually up to one hundred or, in Bashō’s time, thirty six stanzas (called a kasen). Usually this was a group poem, with poets alternating stanzas. Modern renga is called renku.

sabi. “Loneliness.” The term suggests both sorrowful and tranquil, a response to the realization and acceptance of the essential and shared loneliness of things. It can refer to an aspect of the fundamental nature of reality, a quality of a particular moment in nature, and the state of mind that apprehends and conforms to loneliness of the world. This term was a central spiritual-aesthetical ideal of Bashō’s school.

teimon. An early school of haikai poetry established by Matsunaga Teitoku (1571-1653). It was characterized by verbal wit that was not allowed in traditional renga but depended on a knowledge of the classics and observed extensive rules of composition. The Danrin school was in part a reaction against the relative conservatism of this school. Bashō began as a Teimon poet.

utamakura. “Famous places.” The term refers to places famous in Japanese history and culture. These had specific associations concerning historic events, famous people, aspects of nature, and emotional tone.

wabi. “Aesthetic rusticity.” A complex term that suggest simplicity and poverty, unadorned natural beauty, the elegant patina of age, loneliness, freedom from worldly cares, refined aesthetic sensitivity, and tranquillity. In some cases, it includes a tone of deprivation and desolation.

waka. “Classical Japanese verse.” This poetic form consists of a 5-7-5-7-7 syllabic rhythm. It was the principal verse form in the Heian and early medieval periods, and continues to be written today (now called “tanka ”).

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by David Barnhill last modified Nov 21, 2010 06:03 PM