Hass’ Buson

As a long admirer of Japanese haiku, I appreciate the way Robert Hass’ The Essential Haiku: Versions of Basho, Buson, and Issa introduces these three artists, particularly the way it tries to show how they relate to each other, both how they are similar, and, more importantly, how they are different. His introductions have certainly helped me to better understand different approaches to haiku.

For instance, Hass contends that “The religious sense in Buson’s art, if that is what it is, comes from his love of Basho’s poetry and of the Ch’an Buddhist poets and painters whome he studied and admired; it’s in his clear-mindedness and in his sense of alive of things and of their presence.”

As he also points out, Buson’s poems “are painterly in several senses. They are visually intense, many of them have a certain cool and powerful aesthetic detachment, and they are in love with color. There is a sense in them also of the world endlessly coming into being, as if it were brush strokes on white paper.”

These two observations probably help to explain why I prefer Basho to Buson, because, as I’m discovering more and more, my favorite poems generally have a spiritual element to them, especially it relates that spirituality to nature as in:


on the temple bell.

On one level this is certainly a very painterly poem, it’s hard to imagine anything more “painterly” than a butterfly, especially contrasted against a monotone bell, but much of the power of the poem stems from the sense that we, like the butterfly, wait to be awakened by the bell’s knell to our true beauty.

The appeal of the next poem may well be accounted for by love of caligraphy, a form of art I practiced for years until I realized that no matter how much I loved letters and alphabets, I simply lacked the self-discipline and the determination, particularly once I was able to produce a passable work, to continue with calligraphy, especially once I discovered the Mac and Adobe Illustrator.

Calligraphy of geese
against the sky
the moon seals it.

Of course, I’m also fond of the zen-like simplicity of certain Japanese and Chinese paintings, and to the extent that Buson’s captures that simplicity I admire in that art, it’s hard not to love:

Sudden shower–
a flock of sparrows

cling to the grasses.

Of course, as a long-time bird lover, Hardy’s “Darkling Thrush” was, after all the first poem I ever memorized, and my favorite Dickinson poems featured robins, it’s easy to see why I would be biased towards this poem. But in one swift bushstroke Buson seemed to capture the essence of sparrows.

5 thoughts on “Hass’ Buson”

  1. I read Hass’ anthology the summer I worked graveyard shift in a college town convenience store. One night, a woman of, er, ‘questionable profession’ came in for cigarettes in the wee hours of morning and made fun of me for reading poetry.

    James Tate came in while I was reading it, too, but didn’t make fun of me.

    Anyway, my favorite from the anthology is Issa’s:

    Don’t worry, spiders,
    I keep house

  2. I serously thought of using that haiku as one of my favorite, steve, but decided that it hit a little to close to the bone and might give Leslie another excuse to nag about my papers left all over the house.

    Strangely enough, I just picked up James Tate’s Memoir of the Hawk and had planned on reading it next before Spring hit so hard here and I got caught up in taking photographs, and reading haiku.

  3. P.S. I’m assuming since you’re still teaching that I didn’t need the extra “s” after the apostrophe after Hass’ name (even though it still seems counter-intuitive to me) and have gone back and edited my entries.

    (I always hated those nit-picking details I harped on when I supervised the newspaper and the yearbook, not to mention the red pens I emptied while grading essays.)

  4. Your post prompted me to retrieve some pictures I took ten years ago, of a statue of Basho near Hiraizumi, a cultural center established by three generations of the Fujiwara family (from 1089 to 1189) and said to have been as sophisticated as Kyoto. In 1189 the town was razed and the Fujiwara clan annihilated on the orders of Minamoto Yoritomo. Basho passed through Hiraizumi in 1689 and wrote the following poem:

    The summer grasses
    Of brave soldiers’ dreams
    The aftermath.

    Still, as much as I admire Basho, I’m more drawn to Buson and to the features of his work that Hass mentions: its painterly quality and its cool detachment. If you get a chance to see them, I suspect you’d love Buson’s paintings and drawings.

    I have a beautiful book of Buson’s poetry and prose: “Haiku Master Buson” by Yuki Sawa and Edith M. Shiffert. The haiku — rendered in both Japanese and English — are organized by season. My favorite:

    Going through the gate,
    I am also a wanderer
    this twilight in autumn.

    Evidently, however, the best book on Buson is Makoto Ueda’s “The Path of Flowering Thorn: The Life and Poetry of Yosa Buson”.

    Darn it, Loren. This post of yours just cost me US$45!

  5. Dear sir,
    I have found the following haiku published on your website. It was attributed to Issa. I was trying to find the actual Japanese version it :-
    ” Writing shit about new snow
    for the rich
    is not art. ”

    I have consulted with and been advised by a noted scholar that this was done by Robert Hass. “Unfortunately, Hass does not read Japanese. He says so in the introduction to his collection of “Essential Haiku.” What Hass did in that book was to start with an existing translation, usually one by R. H. Blyth, and then “improve it.”
    This makes it extremely hard to figure out what haiku he is talking about. I have just now looked at all of Issa’s haiku with the season word _hatsu yuki_ (first snow), and could not find a single haiku that remotely resembles what Hass has translated. ”
    Being an Asian artist and poet, I find it disgusting that Hass and you are publishing poetry on the web of other cultures inaccurately.
    It is a severe error and I hope your editor will quickly check its authenticity and remove the said poetry until you are sure of its accuracy.
    I am most dissappointed that scholars and cultural workers such as youselves and robert haas are so irresponsible to other cultures. it is a kind of exotic imperialism don’t you think!

    Writing shit as if you did
    but did not
    yet it stinks of high faluting arrogance

    Lee Wen
    Singapore / Tokyo

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