“Word and Image in the Art of Yosa Buson”

It seems ironic to me that a book like John M. Rosenfield's Mynah Birds and Flying Rocks: Word and Image in the Art of Yosa Buson can simultaneously symbolize the internet's strength and weakness. After reading some recent comments on Buson in an earlier blog entry, I decided to find a book that would cover both Buson's haiku and art. Thanks to the internet, I found Rosenfield's book. After receiving it, though, I realized that if I had had the chance to browse it I wouldn't have purchased it, for nearly half this short book (96 pages) is devoted to footnotes and glossaries, leaving far too little actual content to justify the thirty six dollars I paid for it.

The greatest strength, and, perhaps, weakness, of this book is its in-depth coverage of Buson's art and the author's attempts to place Buson's art and poetry in a particular context.

If I hadn't read this book I doubt I would have ever learned:

Buson and the Scholar-Amateur School

Ironically, by adopting techniques of the Nagasaki school (especially its quasi-realism and its use of expensive materials), Buson violated fundamental precepts of the Scholar-Amateur movement with which he had become increasingly identified. This was not, however, the only such ease. Buson was interested in the Zhe school, the most active of the later "Northern" schools of Chinese painting, and often emulated works by artists such as Zhang Lu [fig. 13] 42 Admittedly Buson nowhere referred to himself as a Southern School painter, but - as seen in his essay translated in Appendix A - he was fully aware of the school's basic principles and, on occasion (as I show below), proudly demonstrated his mastery. Those principles can be summarized as follows:"

Throughout their history Scholar-Amateur painters sought to convey not the surface appearance of a subject but its essence or inner meaning, its vital spirit. Artists avoided rich materials and bright colors; they shunned finesse in brushwork and composition. Decorative opulence and displays of virtuoso technique were signs of vulgarity, because silk and colors could be bought and technique could be acquired through practice.

Superficial visual appeal distracted both artist and viewer from penetrating into the moral and metaphysical heart of a subject. Painters and calligraphers were urged to strive for the aesthetic quality called pingdan tianzhi'n (J: heitan tensliin), which may be loosely translated as ease, naturalness, innocence, and blandness - qualities thought to reflect the Scholar-Amateurs' nobility of mind and character. Paintings were often small in scale, deceptively simple, and even artless; calligraphies were often self-consciously awkward or distorted.

This kind of background information obviously gives a depth to Buson's haiku that I had previously been unaware of, leading to an even greater appreciation of his poetry.

Ironically, while providing a more complete background for Buson's poems, Rosenfield also makes it clear that it is probably impossible for this western reader to ever fully appreciate Japanese haiku because I lack the cultural context these compact poems are written in:

If Matsuo Basho brought haiga to its mature prominence, Yosa Buson wrought his own powerful changes. A classic example by Buson is a seemingly cheerful and uncomplicated picture of a mountain cuckoo (hototogisu) soaring over a flowering hydrangea (ajisal) [plate 2]6 The verse, however, adds a scenario that darkens the scene:

Iwakura no kyco -
Koi seyo
Hototogisu
BS 463;BZ-1 1052


Mad woman of Iwakura
Make love!
Hototogisu.

When this poem was published in an anthology in 1777, Buson added a brief headnote explaining that madness could be cured by bathing in a waterfall at a Buddhist temple at Iwakura (then some distance from the northern outskirts of Kvoto). Further checking reveals that the temple was called Daiun-ji, that its monks cultivated hydrangeas, and that in popular legend the consort of Emperor Reizei (950-1011) was cured of mental illness by drinking from a waterfall there. Buson's verse thus wove a complex network of topics into a seemingly simple picture: the cuckoo, which Japanese poets often considered a messenger of love;' a crazed woman, with the implication that she was lovelorn; the hydrangea, symbol of the temple where madness was cured; and the and cultural context evoked by the single word 'Iwakura.' The highly literate people for whom he painted this work probably recognized the allusion; those who did not missed the full range of Buson's meaning.

It's a little disheartening to realize I will probably always miss "the full range of Buson's meaning" because I will never acquire this kind of cultural context.

Of course this doesn't come as a complete revelation. Previous reading has made me realize that I did not fully understand or appreciate concepts like "season words" or understand why recognizing them should be critical to appreciating haiku. Worse, my relatively superficial understanding of Zen Buddhism, while perhaps more extensive than the average American's understanding, probably also causes me to miss much of the meaning in these poems.

In other words, my appreciation of these poems probably reveals more about me and my current feelings about poetry than it does about the quality of the poems themselves.

3 thoughts on ““Word and Image in the Art of Yosa Buson”

  1. But isn’t this true of every poem, particularly historical poems. You acquire the cultural knowledge in order to understand the poetry rather than the other way around.

    I imagine many of your students didn’t have the literary or historical knowledge to understand dense, historically allusive poetry, like Coleridge or Hardy or Eliot wrote. You, as the teacher, provided them with the context, taught them how much more is in the poem than might first appear. Surely, Japanese youth also need a teacher to understand these nuances.

  2. I don’t think you should reproach yourself for having a “relatively superficial understanding of Zen Buddhism”. The more superficial it is, the better, I’d say. But you provide the cultural context of these poems in a very Zen way. With minumum fuss, and maximum effect. I’ve learned something new.

What do you think?