A Labor of Haiku

old paper and quill

In honor of Labor Day, I thought I would take a look at the labors of a great poet. Yes, poets work, too!

The Japanese poet, Matsuo Basho, had a couple of “day jobs.” He was born into a family of samurai circa 1644. Obligated to serve, he did so until his feudal master’s death. He relocated to Edo (now Tokyo) at 29 and spent several years in a physically demanding job to earn a living. During his first few years in Edo, he wrote and published a volume of poetry in the classical style of the day. But he really developed his unique style after 1680, when one of his wealthier admirers provided him with free living quarters, a cottage in Fukugawa. This allowed him to devote more time to his work as a poet.

His ability to capture a single moment, the crystallization of nature and emotion in time, was brilliant and distinctive. His twin talents of writing and teaching drew people in. At his cottage, he hosted contests and renga gatherings–poetry parties (yes, poetry parties!) held for the purpose of writing collaborative, linked poems.

He took long journeys, walking hundreds of miles on four separate trips over the last ten years of his life, either alone or with a student/apprentice. In one of his travel journals, “The Records of a Travel-Worn Satchel,” he wrote that his mind “knows no other art than the art of writing poetry, and therefore, hangs on to it more or less blindly.”

As he grew older he grew more frail and reclusive. (I can relate to that.) After his last journey, he wrote:

falling sick on a journey

my dream goes wandering

over a field of dried grass

Basho’s life was not long (50 years), but it was filled with both work and wonder. I hope yours is, too. Happy Labor Day!

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