Direct Encounters: The Japanese Poetic Tradition

Summer 2017



Japanese poet Matsuo Bashō (1644-1694) once wrote:


Cold rain starting

and no hat –



This short poem expresses a pervasive theme in the Japanese poetic tradition – what one might describe as a desire for direct encounters. Bashō’s pseudonym, in fact, refers to the fragile leaves of the banana tree, with which he constructed the roof of his riverside hut. He celebrated how easily the wind tore these leaves, making his roof less roof-like, and allowing contact with the elements.


In this seminar we will trace the history of Japanese poetry (700 AD to the present). Among others we will read Yamabe no Akahito, Otomo no Yakamochi, Saigyo, Matsuo Bashō, Kobayashi Issa, and Santoka Taneda. We will also read some classical Chinese poets – Tu Fu, Su Tung P’o, Li Ch’ing Chao – with whom later Japanese poets are in dialogue. Through our direct encounters with these poets (using the best possible English translations) we will observe the sheer range of their own direct encounters. Poems of remarkable clarity, concision, elegance, humor, and seriousness will display remarkable levels of contact with nature, solitude, love, anguish, beauty, and fleetingness.


Each class, students will submit a short response (1-3 pages) that engages the assigned material however he or she sees fit – a poem, essay, or multimedia piece. Experimentation will be encouraged. The important thing will be to move from these poems into direct encounters with daily life. As Bashō himself says,


Don’t imitate me;

it’s as boring

as the two halves of a melon.