Following Basho, the next master haiku poet of ancient Japan was Yosa Buson. Buson, however, was much more than a master haiku poet; he also was a distinguished painter. And in his haiku, this comes across through a visual intensity and a love for color.

A tethered horse,
in both stirrups

Field of bright mustard
the moon in the east,
the sun in the west

Buson was born in 1716 to a fairly well-off family. As is the case with ancient Japanese poets, little is known of his childhood. It is known that he lost his parents at an early age. Around the age of 20, he left his home village of Kema to study painting and poetry in Edo.

It is interesting to note that in China, painting was not considered an art like poetry. Painting was considered a trade and a good way to make a living. The Wenjen painters of the Tang dynasty revolted against the over-commercialization of painting and, in the process, elevated painting to the level of fine art.

This same approach was taken by Japanese painters like Buson, who adopted the wenjen sensibility to declare their own freedom from commercialization.

Buson obviously was not just limiting himself to painting. He had always written haikai and used painting as a way to finance his life as a poet.

Around the small house
struck by lightening,
melon flowers

A urine-stained quilt
drying on the line
Suma village

Around the age of 26, Buson set off on a pilgrimage across the country. This was a common practice for many Japanese, the equivalent of the modern day “finding of oneself”. During the ten years he wandered, he put most of his efforts into painting as he traveled, but little of his painting (let alone poetry) survives.

He followed Basho’s travels through the northern land of Japan and even made illustrations for Basho’s book, “Narrow Road to the Far North.” He shaved his head and dressed as a lay monk. He did not lead a monastic life, however, as he had a fondness for drink and geishas.

At the age of 36, Buson settled down in Kyoto. Over the next ten years he firmly established himself as the preeminent painter and poet in Kyoto. Sufficiently established and financially secure, at the age of 47 he married. However, this did not quench his tastes for liquor and the aforementioned geishas.

The mad girl
in the boat midday;
spring currents

Chrysanthemum growers
you are the slaves
of chrysanthemums!

A student asked Buson what the secret to haikai was and Buson replied, “Use the commonplace to escape the commonplace.” Buson, however, was not the most congenial teacher and friend as is evidenced by his statement that, “on the whole, it is a bother to keep up relationships with people in this world.”

When he was asked to head up the haikai school of Hajin in Edo, he responded with this statement:
“These days, those who dominate the haikai world peddle their different styles, ridicule and slander everyone else, and puff themselves up with the title of “master”. They flaunt their wealth, parade their ignorance, and promote themselves by arranging their students’ innumerable wretched verses in anthologies. Those who know better cover their eyes in embarrassment and are ashamed of such behavior.”

After some prodding, Buson did take on the role of “master” at the school.

Sleeping late
stuck to the soles of his sandals,
cherry blossoms

Autumn evening
there’s joy also
in loneliness

Buson’s work as a haiku poet truly blossomed around the age of 55. He was the acknowledged haiku master and made a sufficient wage as a painter. Books of his poems began being published, including “Light from the Snow” in 1772 and “Around Here” and “A Crow at Dawn” in 1773.

In 1783, at the age of 67, Buson passed away from chest pains. But like the master Basho before him, his life ended with a final haiku, entitled “Early Spring”:

In the white plum blossoms
night to next day
just turning

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

What We're Up To ...

Litkicks will turn 30 years old in the summer of 2024! We can’t believe it ourselves. We don’t run as many blog posts about books and writers as we used to, but founder Marc Eliot Stein aka Levi Asher is busy running two podcasts. Please check out our latest work!