Basho’s poetic spirit: A mode of radiance

For Basho (1644-1694), in whose hands the haiku form achieves its essence, the poet must

submerge himself within a natural object, to perceive its delicate life and feel its feelings, out of which a poem forms itself. A poem may skillfully delineate an object; but, unless it embodies feelings which have been naturally emerged out of the object, the poem will fall short of the true poetic sentiment, since it presents the object and the poet as two separate things. (quoted in Makoto Ueda, ‘Basho and the Poetics of “Haiku,”‘ The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 21.4 (Summer 1963), 424)

Haiku is a spiritual exercise (ascesis) in the way of communing with ordinary things. It is not that one wishes to spend one’s days writing haiku. On the contrary, it is that one seeks to adopt the true poetic spirit, to come to a mode of spontaneous living, and it is out of such spontaneity that a poem may pour itself forth. By endeavoring to make one’s mind clear as the cloud passing over the redwoods, by bending one’s ear, first thing in the morning, to hear the copper face of the wind chime, one may be limbered up for ‘inspiration, in Basho’s sense.

Composition of a poem must be done in an instant, like a woodcutter feeling a huge tree or a swordsman leaping at a dangerous foe. It is also like cutting a ripe watermelon with a sharp knife, or taking a large bite of a pear. (Ibid, 427)

The haiku, a mode of radiance’s appearance, invokes goodness and beauty but makes no clean distinction between the two. Humble, simple, delicate, light: remember these. Be these.

Alice in Wonderland in northern California

When Alice opened the front door, she was amazed to see a giant sequoia looking impassively back at her. The tree engulfed her view, so dwarfed her egress that she had to tiptoe and shimmy sideways to get out the door.


Outside, she stepped back and back to take more of it in. And as her eyes climbed up the thick trunk like ants scurrying along a rough-hewn table, she was taken and taken up by the sky. It was as though she were looking into a concave-shaped cosmos: a deep bowl of passing clouds held in place by tree limbs all around the sides. (But what, she thought, held the bottom in place? Would not the passing clouds leak out?) Watching the clouds sweep from side to side, Alice soon forgot her tiny feet as well as her craning neck. Soon she forgot her thoughts and soon after that herself.