This week we move on to Yosa (or Taniguchi) Buson (1716-1783). The link again takes you to a biography and you can click to read some of Buson’s poems.
To fill in some of the blanks, we turn again to Harold G. Henderson’s masterful book An Introduction to Haiku: An Anthology of Poems and Poets from Basho to Shiki. Henderson says the Japanese regard Buson as second in the haiku firmament only to Basho. Buson was multifaceted, like a diamond, and thus we cannot point to any one haiku and say it is typical of Buson.
Buson was also an artist with paint, and this informed his poetry; many of his haiku include richly developed scenes. Henderson notes that this is one of the things that makes Buson so difficult for non-Japanese readers who have not spent time in Japan. Without an intimate knowledge of Japanese life and customs, one simply cannot get the same image Buson saw when he wrote his haiku. Henderson also tells us that many of Buson’s finest haiku are virtually untranslatable due to his mastery of technique, using tone color and onomatopoeia.
So there are hard and fast limits to our ability to grasp Buson as his countrymen do. Nevertheless, we can get enough from what the translators have been able to accomplish to appreciate Buson’s genius.
One of his most famous haiku presents a problem for modern poets:
The piercing chill I feel:
my dead wife’s comb, in our bedroom,
under my heel . . .
(Translation by Henderson)
Modern haiku practice tells us to write only that which we directly experience and not to engage in flights of fancy. Haiku is not supposed to be merely excellent wordplay or speculation; it is to express this moment. Buson broke that rule most famously in this haiku as his wife outlived him by many years. Success is easier if you are wonderfully talented and if you do your work before the rules ossify.
Next week: Issa.