If Basho Owned a Camera

by V. Plut 4 months ago in art

Poetry and Photography

If Basho Owned a Camera
Camera With Portrait of Basho by Hokusai, ©V. Plut

Matsuo Kinsaku, or Basho, as he is more commonly known, born 1644 in Japan, considered to be the master of Haiku poetry, would today perhaps take a liking to the camera, especially the iphone and smaller mirrorless cameras. They could easily have been transported in his backpack on a trip into the north country of Japan — but would it have changed his poetry?

A lot of poems published now are accompanied by a photograph — Basho would sometimes draw a little picture to pair with some of his poetry, but his haiku generally holds its own as imagery.

The photograph with poem concept can be a bit like haiban, except that the photograph would precede the haiku, rather than prose. It can serve as a complement to, rather than a description of the poem. Most poems with photos that I have seen tend to simply complement the poem, although I have seen some poems created as almost a description of a photo. Some poems are simply inspired by photographs. Some artists feel that a photograph can be haiku in itself.

The bee emerging

from deep within the peony

departs reluctantly

~ from Travelogue of Weather-Beaten Bones, Matsuo Basho

Basho was born into a lower class of Samurai during the Edo period in Japan, a time when the country isolated itself from the world, and Japanese art and culture flourished. He spent his younger years as a servant under a local lord who, according to various accounts, either served as a literary mentor to Basho, and later a literary colleague of sorts, or simply a household master who taught him in his formative years — the exact relationship is still uncertain. His literary interests led him to create the most popular and well-crafted poetry of his time.

He taught for a time when his master/mentor died and later took an interest in Zen Buddhism, living a simple existence in a hut and travelling throughout Japan, logging his numerous journeys in the form of poetry. By this time he had started writing under the name of Basho after one of his students gifted him with some basho trees.

The haiku, as Basho intended, was created to prompt an organic image in the brain, and create a feeling of being one with nature and the universe as a whole. In this sense, the reading of the haiku is an actual live experience akin to reality. Ingesting a haiku for example, about cherry blossoms into the brain via the image created with language is equal to the actual experience and even goes beyond that, by serving as a metaphor at times for a wider literary and philosophical or even spiritual experience.

If he had a camera, what would he have done with it? Would he have treated it as a separate means of expression, an art in itself, or would he have used the photograph to enhance his haiku? I would say that by virtue of the fact that he successfully created many wonderful aesthetic universal experiences with haiban and haiku that we still enjoy today, a camera would not have been one of his tools.

I would say that Basho went beyond the photograph in that he created a living experience in his writing that cannot be completely reproduced with technology. He could only have created a facsimile of his poetry, and would have found the camera unnecessary.

I think a question arises here about photography and technically produced images. Perhaps film would be close to evoking some sense of reality, but it is still much like the still photograph, in that it bypasses language and presents itself immediately without much effort having to be conjured by the viewer. The viewer is less actively engaged.

There is something about language and the written word. It was here before technology and it was here for a reason. In fact, our brains could not have ascended to a higher organic existence and we could not have created technology in the first place without it.

In fact, language is why we have Art, and animals do not. It is what separates us from the animals, and is part of what makes us human. The spoken and written word can evoke images — that is pretty amazing when you think about it. It can conjure images in the brain that go beyond what is written or said with the addition of the receiver’s input, whereas the photograph is the antithesis, in that it presents a pre-constructed image on a one-dimensional surface that does not allow a lot of wiggle room on the receiver’s behalf, except to provoke associations and add more data to the brain.

Spring passes

and the birds cry out — tears

in the eyes of fishes

~ from Narrow Road to the Interior, Matsuo Basho

Basho did not need a camera — as a living, organic evocateur of images in three-dimensional reality, he was a camera, and then some — although as an artist, I think he would have welcomed the camera into his satchel as much as he did the pen.

Thank you!

Haiku: かれ朶に烏のとまりけり秋の暮 (kareeda ni / karasu no tomarikeri / aki no kure) Painting by Morikawa Kyoriku (1656–1715), the calligraphy by Matsuo Basho (1644–94). Idemitsu Art Museum, Public Domain

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