Studying the haiku of the masters recently, I also did some research into their personal lives, and discovered that a few great poets were gracious enough to bestow some advice to us poets. Two of the best haiku poets were Basho (the Japanese poet of the late 1600s who is the acknowledged master of haiku) and Buson (a well-respected painter-poet of 18th century Japan).
If we divide the writing of poetry into three parts, those parts might be described as: 1) Reception (opening your mind to the world around you), 2) Inspiration (when something in the world sparks a resonating feeling inside you), and 3) Composition (translating that sparked feeling into words).
I just made up this division scheme, but the reason I did is that I notice both Basho and Buson concentrate their advice upon the first two stages of the poetry making process, and most especially on the first, Reception.
Basho, the famous Wandering Poet, encourages the poet to get out there in the world for his inspiration. “Enjoy the falling blossoms and the scattering leaves,” he tells us. I think he is saying that we must put ourselves in a situation of potential inspiration, with our minds open and receiving.
And he makes sure to tell us that we don’t need to contemplate a sunset or lotus blossom to achieve inspiration. Inspirational things are all around us: on the sidewalk, beside the porch, in front of that tree— but we must gaze with the artist’s eye and inhale with the poet’s heart if we want to sense the sublime within the beauty, and the truth within the fact.
“For the person who has the spirit,” says Basho, “everything he sees becomes a flower, and everything he imagines turns into a moon.” Haiku is full of poetry that takes the mundane and turns it into the sublime. “Use the commonplace to escape the commonplace,” advises Buson, succinct as always.
Fine, fine, you might say, but how exactly does one look with the artist’s eye and feel with the poet’s heart? Basho actually has a step by step answer to this practical query:
“One must first of all concentrate one’s thought upon an object. Once one’s mind achieves a state of concentration and the space between oneself and the object has disappeared, the essential nature of the object can then be perceived.”
First then, comes Concentration. The powers of concentration can easily atrophy in this multi-tasking world where we are rarely called upon to exercise more than a thirty-second attention span of serious focus. We who aspire to poetic glory must purposefully exercise our powers of concentration as we would exercise our muscles or our lungs. It may take time to build up this meditative muscle, but it is vital. High powered concentration is, then, the first and foremost skill required of the poet, according to Basho.
When we have grown the power of our concentrative skills strong enough, we will then be able to erase the space between ourselves and the contemplated thing (task, object, event, et cetera). The thing will infuse us. We will become the boiled water for the steeping tea. This is a sublime moment in the poetry process. This is where we transcend our self-consciousness and become almost unconscious. It is a moment of Zen. It has been called the stillpoint moment. It is the bliss of, say, a baseball player when all he thinks about is the fastball coming at him, and in that instant, he is, in a sense, one with the baseball, and all pains and fears fade away. For the poet in contemplation, this is when, as Basho explains, “the essential nature of the object” is perceived.
Then, after Reception (according to my ad hoc tri-part theory of poetry making), the mind brings its entire history, and the heart its entire feeling, into collision with this absorbed “essential nature” and, like flint stones striking, a spark of Inspiration will hopefully ignite.
Alas, one must move quickly here to the Composition stage of poetry making and not allow the spark of Inspiration to escape. The wild fires of pure inspiration must be caught and coaxed onto a torch that you may, at least for the moment, control. Basho instructs that once the essential nature of the thing has been grasped, you must “then express it immediately.” He warns that “if one ponders it, it will vanish from the mind.” So don’t be shy in bringing along that notepad with you to jot down inspirational ideas. This is merely the first step in the third part, the Composition part, of writing poetry. Later you will mold the ideas into something of beautiful form and meaning. This is just the birth of the clay.
One of Basho’s most brilliant students was Naito Joso. I think he’s especially cool because he was once a samurai! He moved through the steps of Reception-Inspiration-Composition once upon a stormy night and came out with this gem:
“The sleet falls / as if coming through the bottom / of loneliness.”
Yeah, like I said. Cool dude.
As I also said, Basho is well-known as the Seeker-Poet. A century and a half before Tennyson penned the immortal words, “to strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield,” Basho was already livin’ the dream. The life of a wandering poet may seem easy and care free to those who have never been homeless, but I assure you, it is not. The temptation to re-enter Society –to accept its gifts by adopting its norms, to feed fat upon its freedoms by donning its chains– is difficult to resist. Basho purposefully chose the life of a impoverished seeker, but it wasn’t easy. “Leading a life so liberated,” he said, “requires an iron will.” As always, freedom is not free.
For Basho, wandering the world was his way of engaging it and of keeping his inspiration fresh. For Buson, the more planted painter-poet, seeking the essential was more about staying put, about the quiet meditative moment. I think someone once said that if you stay in one place long enough, all of the world will eventually come to you. I once had a moment of comprehension, myself, where I stared at a tree until I realized that the tree was a river –a river of molecules and atoms flowing into, passing through, and then flowing out of the tree. The whole world was visiting me!
One of my favorite love poems (a sad one, but then, most of my favorite love poems probably are) is this amazing one from Buson:
You are plum blossoms on the water,
Petals floating by til they pass out of sight.
I am a willow growing by the stream.
My shadow is sunk in it, and I cannot follow.
One other thing. Basho was extremely concerned that his pupils not merely attempt to imitate him, but to do something different. Or as Ezra Pound might say it, “make it new.”
Says Basho: “Do not imitate me. It is as boring as two halves of the same melon.” Go to the source, he says, not to me. Basho states that a poet must “learn about pines from the pine, and about bamboo from the bamboo.”
“Do not follow in the footsteps of the old poets,” says Basho. “Seek what they sought.”